Don’t ask me why I remember this, but it was said that actor Rex Harrison, who played the first Doctor Dolittle in a live adaptation, had a sheep urinate on him for a scene in the 1967 musical. Now, of course, it’s 2020, and we have Robert Downey Jr. playing the titular role and not having to endure anything close to what his predecessor did, thanks to CG creatures taking over the role of his co-stars. The problem is, the rest of the cast and crew of Dolittle don’t seem to have really sweated for their parts, resulting in an uninspiring take on author Hugh Lofting’s books.
Unlike the 1998 Eddie Murphy-starrer Dr Dolittle which was set in San Francisco, this film, in order to stay faithful to its source material, is set in Victorian England. Our beloved and eccentric vet who has the amazing ability to converse with animals has locked himself up behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor after the death of his wife, Lily Dolittle. Conflict comes in the form of Queen Victoria falling gravely ill, leading him to set on a perilous seafaring adventure to find a cure. While the one-liner might remind us of some of Hollywood’s best expedition films, it’s unfortunately a tougher journey for us than it is for Dolittle.
While Stephen Gaghan, who got an Oscar for scripting Traffic, is credited as the director, the film underwent extensive reshoots, supervised by director Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and writer Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie). Even the title got changed from The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, a reference to one of Lofting’s creations. The film feels like an incoherent mishmash of ideas. Downey Jr., strangely, is unable to channel his charisma for this role, and instead, seems to be brooding over his end in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
He also can’t seem to stick to one accent. It’s a film that has trouble getting even the basics right. The emotional connect of seeing Murphy’s Dolittle trying to be a better person for a family and society that fails to understand him, is missing here. Here, our hero, a character akin to a James Bond or Ethan Hunt, is on a mission; the gadgetry is replaced with the cast of Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries. Even the CG, elemental to such a genre, feels inconsistent. Dolittle also joins the ignominous list of films that simply did not warrant a 3D version.