VOD film review: Dolittle (2020)
Ivan Radford | On 13, Sep 2020
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Michael Sheen, Antonio Banderas
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“If I could talk to the animals, just imagine it… What a neat achievement that would be!” So sang Rex Harrison in the 1967 Oscar-winning musical Doctor Dolittle. 53 years later, someone imagined that Robert Downey Jr could do the same thing, and it’s not a very neat achievement at all.
Downey Jr’s star power has never been in question, from his Marvel-making turn as Iron Man to his laugh-out-loud antiheroics in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and his eccentric Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s take on the iconic detective. But his charisma is strangely lacking here, as Downey Jr piles on the quirks and mannerisms so much that there’s no room for character or – perhaps even more crucially – humour anywhere.
A string of bizarre choices begins with his accent, which rivals that of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins or Russell Crowe in Robin Hood for geographic licence. Presumably meant to be Welsh, it makes his Victorian gent with a knack for conviving with humankind’s furry friends impossible to believe on any level. It’s a shame, because he’s supported by some impressive effects work that ranges from a gorilla and a parrot to a giraffe and a stick insect, all of which look the part but never for one second feel like they actually exist.
Human-wise, there’s some strong support too, with Jessie Buckley under-used as a bedridden Queen Victoria, leading to Dolittle being hired to diagnose her and find the cure – much to the displeasure of Jim Broadbent’s courtier and Antonio Banderas’ father-in-law. The show is stolen, though, by Michael Sheen, who is having a huge amount of fun as a bitter rival physician who resents any success Dolittle has. But while Sheen going full villain as a conceited antagonist is worth tuning in for alone, it only highlights just how wide of the mark everything else is, with a script by no fewer than five people failing to come up with dramatic stakes, surprising plot twists or entertaining dialogue. (A film about his Dr Blair Mudfly instead could have been a much more interesting prospect.)
The whole thing is overseen by writer-director Stephen Gaghan, who previously brought harrowing heft and gripping tension to Syriana. A family movie from the man behind that geopolitical thriller turns out to be as fun as it sounds. A sadly missed opportunity.