Of all the franchises in the world, I can’t think of many I would want to see a reboot of. But even on that short list, I don’t think the Doctor Dolittle mythology is one worth revisiting.
Even with the extra drawing power of post-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr, this film has found it hard to get off the ground since its release, and if you think it’s doing badly now, imagine how badly it would have done in its original release window of competing with Star Wars.
This is a genuinely puzzling decision on RDJ’s part to me; following up the success of being in the biggest film of all time by being in a by-the-numbers, bafflingly stupid remake of Doctor Dolittle of all things?
Let me take a step back for a minute and set the scene for you. During the reign of Queen Victoria, Doctor Dolittle is forced out of self-imposed exile to tend to the dying Queen, who has fallen ill under suspicious circumstances, and the only cure lies half way across the world, facilitating a globe-spanning adventure.
Ironically, for a film styling itself as an adventure film, it’s the most unadventurous thing I’ve seen in quite some time. So unadventurous in fact, that it manages to break the scale of adventure and be ludicrously unexciting.
Here is a brief rundown of a scene in Dolittle that actually happens, and hold onto your hats because it’s a doozy: Dr Dolittle, assisted by a Goose, an Ostrich and a Gorilla (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani and John Cena respectively) help a dragon give birth to some bagpipes. I am not joking, pick your jaw off the floor.
So, you might be thinking, any film with such a bizarre and strange scene must be styling itself as a parody film, to which I would say: someone hasn’t been paying attention so far, as to aspire to that level of parody would take levels of effort that appear to be far beyond the filmmakers involved with this. Not only is it played somewhat seriously, it’s made to feel routine, as if this well-respected vet is used to pulling musical instruments out of mythical beasts. No amount of time is spent on it, it just happens then crash cuts to the next scene.
This bizarre, and incredibly disjointed approach isn’t limited to this scene though, there are a few instances of the film blinding itself with its own stupidity.
Firstly, Doctor Dolittle works on humans AND animals; now, I’m not a world knowledge on the Doctor Dolittle universe, but I’ve always thought he was just a vet, as a being a vet and being a doctor are two very different sets of skills. I’m aware that I’m pondering the workings of medicinal practice in a film with talking animals, but still I expect the world to be cohesive, for things to make sense, I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept talking animals in particular instances, I can’t accept a Doctor going from removing a bullet from a squirrel to diagnosing a very rare case of poisoning in a human Queen in back-to-back scenes.
Also, and this is a gripe that applies a lot to American films who don’t know much about Britain, but it bears saying here: the Queen is not in charge. She’s the head of state yes, but only in the same way that Ronald McDonald is in charge of McDonalds. Her job is the figurehead, she sits on a throne and waves at people poorer than her.
Furthermore, if the Queen were to die in a very suspicious fashion, chances are that the crown wouldn’t pass to some random member of the House of Lords, like this film implies it will. The monarchy doesn’t work like the Roman Empire, I’m afraid.
It’s these kind of mounting annoyances that make Dolittle a chore to watch. When it isn’t treating the audience like absolute cretins it’s treating its own characters that way. There are no arcs in this film, each character has a journey equivalent to going down a mine shaft in a rickety cart, there’s no development, just events. Things happen and nobody grows as people from opening titles to end credits.
If it doesn’t have a high opinion of its characters, it sure as hell doesn’t hold its audience in a high regard, presenting us with a plot that feels like it was scraped of the floor of Indiana Jones’ basement, complete with all the hackneyed cliches and tropes that a film uses when it has no respect for its audience.
Exposition-filled narration? Check
Characters built solely from archetypes? Check
Focus on action that defies logic? Check
Story that we’ve seen a million times before? Double check.
The film doesn’t have a single original thought in its head, and while other projects might reassemble previously used plot points into something new, this film just doesn’t have the effort or imagination required to do so.
If you have any doubts as to whether this film is insulting to your intelligence then look no further than the conclusion of the whole ‘adventure’ part of the narrative, not only is it telegraphed in a way that seems to shout: ‘look thicko, here’s a creature thought to be fictional, that we have no reason to bring up, but we’re doing so to explain its inclusion in our crap story. Look at how clever we are.’ But it’s executed in such a way that destroys all the previous threats to our protagonists and is resolved within five minutes, and the bottom falls out of the film with an audible thunk.
Maybe it’s my own fault for expecting anything more from a Doctor Dolittle remake released in what is essentially the graveyard shift for films. Maybe it was silly of me to expect Robert Downey Jr, of all people, to be a bit more choosey with his projects, but here we are, barely two-and-a-half months in to 2020, and I think we may have already found a contender for the years worst film.
Uninterested-seeming performers stumble their way through a shoddy script, all shot in the most unimaginative way possible, the best thing I can say about Dolittle is it probably won’t be memorable enough to really get good and steamed up about come December, but surely that’s the biggest killing blow? A film so uninteresting in its awfulness to be truly considered bad, the best it can hope for is that in a years time no one remembers it.