The story is fairly straightforward, which it has to be for kids to follow, but it’s a story that could be summed up in a few paragraphs that doesn’t reveal anything that you would miss. Without spoiling anything, it begins like a story book, which is fitting since Dolittle is based on a series of books about a fictional 19th century English Doctor that has the unique ability to talk to animals. I actually liked the animated story that was accompanied by the soothing voice of Emma Thompson to try and give us a backstory on the titular character. It was colourful, and a little heartwarming too, before it just took a quick turn.(“Tell me again how fabulous I Am.”)
It begins by telling us that Dolittle was quite extraordinary because of what he could do, but met his match when he fell in love with a famous explorer. Both Dolittle and the woman he met, Lily, got married and explored some of the most exotic places around the world, rescuing animals from poachers and other troublesome people. Some of these animals joined the Dolittles on these adventures and they became a strange, but caring family. They eventually opened a large practice on grounds granted to them by the Queen of England. People from all over would bring their pets, and other animals, to be treated by this amazing duo. Things did go downhill when Lily wanted to travel on her greatest adventure yet, to find the Eden Tree, an island that only appears in legends, and contains a special fruit with unknown properties. Unfortunately, Lily does not survive the journey as her ship is capsized due to a frightening storm. She gives her wedding ring to one of their animal family members, a macaw called Polynesia, to bring back to her beloved. Once he got the news he shut the doors to the grounds forever, and retreated in solitude to live among the animals, separating himself from humanity in fear of being hurt again.
The death of his wife seemed a bit sudden. I could have accepted his wife leaving and never returning, with some hope that she might still be alive somewhere. It wasn’t the sort of tone I thought would be put into a movie for kids. If I were to sum it up I suppose I would say “everything was amazing and wonderful, they had a great life together, but she left and then died”. No two ways about it. Fast forward an unspecified amount of time, long enough for greenery to cover the walls of the estate, and the story carries on in live-action, no time to really process what happened. The estate is found by a young boy, called Stubbins, carrying an injured animal, and is guided by a macaw to the one person that can help. He was hunting with his family and accidentally shot this poor squirrel. Despite the circumstances he is a kind-natured person, having never killed an animal. After bringing the squirrel to Dolittle he finds a shattered man, bearded and rude, that wants nothing to do with anyone from the outside world. Preferring the company of monkeys, dogs and a polar bear with a hat he wants this boy to leave.
(“Watch the banana Bobo!”)
Robert Downey Junior comes off as a sort of mix between Captain Jack Sparrow and RDJ as Sherlock Holmes. He’s a bit of an eccentric but it’s not clear if he was always like this, or if it is a result of years of isolation. It’s not really a good day for him as he is also visited by a representative of the Queen, requesting his help because she has fallen mysteriously ill and only he can save her. Despite his reluctance at leaving he amazingly comes round and leaves, albeit with persistent encouragement from his animal friends. After discovering what may have brought the Queen to such a sudden state of near-death the good Doctor knows what may help, the very thing his wife died to find, a miracle cure that might not even exist. All of this was not done by the kindness of his heart, but out of necessity to keep his zoo. If the Queen dies then the deed will go to the treasury, and all of the animals will need to find somewhere else to call home, but will probably be hunted instead.(“Okay, just a peck mind!”)
By this stage I had to just suspend my disbelief entirely. I was already asking questions a child wouldn’t think of asking, such as how, or even why, the estate was allowed to run with hundreds of animals despite being closed for business (since it was endorsed by the Queen). I also asked how Dolittle managed to feed all of the animals, catering to their multitude of dietary requirements, and kept them from mauling each other despite being cut off. I wondered how he spoke to the animals, because it has been implied that he speaks their “languages”, making noises and grunts that can be understood by them but just sounding ridiculous to a person. I thought that maybe it was something magical, which would actually make more sense than just understanding what each growl means, but I don’t remember being given a reason behind it all, just having to accept that maybe it doesn’t need one. I decided to stop looking at this as an adult and just try to switch off and be a little kid for the remaining run time in hopes that I would be blown away by the majesty of it all. But, I just wasn’t.(“Never mind soft Kitty, how about some Toto!”)
I couldn’t get excited for the journey the cast was taking, as I felt like I was already there before. Dolittle had taken a few of his animals friends on a ship that he supposedly had already and sets sail to save the Queen, to save his zoo. Of course, there was some Lord or whatever that may have wanted the Queen to die, and he sends another doctor after Dolittle to make sure he fails his task. There was no build-up, no forewarning of evil afoot, just “oh, these guys are kind of bad and although we don’t really know who they are we’re just going to say they’re the bad guys in all of this”. Because every story needs a bad guy for the good guy to overcome, right? I mean…every…story. So, it’s nothing we haven’t already seen before. Our would-be heroes come across the bad guys very shortly after leaving, but manage to escape in a very unbelievable, but pretty innovative fashion.(“It’s me..Peter Barker!”)
As expected in this movie there is a large variety of CGI animals, all voiced brilliantly from a surprisingly well-known cast. There are a lot of voices that are instantly recognisable and it made me think that perhaps they consumed a large portion of the budget for the CGI. It wasn’t always bad, but in close-ups there was definitely a dip in quality, making it more obvious that they are probably actors wearing some sort of motion-capture getup. It looks out of place when you see real people looking at, interacting with and communicating with these creatures that don’t look real. It might have been a better decision to make the entire movie animated because it would have allowed so many more silly antics, and over-the-top scenes to take place that don’t look a little stupid when done by an actor. Imagine if an anime was brought to live-action, but the actors still pulled off the same motions and facial expressions as the animated characters. Yeah, it would look downright ridiculous and I know it has been done before (which is why anime should only be animated).(“But that’s a real nice ski mask! Ha Ha Ha!”)
Now, despite my apparent bashing of the movie I will say this, there were quite a few funny scenes and lines that I did openly enjoy. I went to this by myself, and I have no kids, so I already stuck out like a sore thumb. Why would I want to draw attention to myself? Well I was saved by the thundering laughter of everyone else that echoed across the room. A lot of the jokes fell flat, and the animals appeared to be there just to offer some one-liners or silly comments, more for the kids of course, but there were some genuine moments that felt like they fitted the tone. If only they kept that up throughout, I would have more to say and reminisce about. Sometimes the dialogue just didn’t fit the tone, but when it did it worked quite well, and was delivered by an excellent cast. Of course it wouldn’t be a family film without some hidden jokes for the parents, jokes I repeated to my wife later and we both agreed that they were quite subtle but quite good too.(“You’ll understand when you’re older sugar glider.”)
The characters had a decent chemistry between them, especially Dolittle and his primary animal companions. There were some moments that were touching, and seeing how much they cared for each other convinced me that they were a very special family. But, I had no idea why Stubbins was there besides just wanting to come along. I know I didn’t mention him since the beginning, but he plays a larger role in the movie, and I still don’t know what he contributed.The bond between Stubbins and Dolittle doesn’t flow naturally but that may be because Stubbins never even knew who Dolittle was until he turned up at his estate. He just found this unique character and decided he wanted to be the same, but I don’t remember him asking Dolittle who he was, or learning about his life before meeting him. Stubbins declares himself to be Dolittle’s apprentice and puts up with the antics of the potentially insane man in order to feel like he belongs. But, I just didn’t feel that connection between them.(“I’m sorry, you’re too boring to be my apprentice.”)
All I have said is based on what I have seen, as an adult, but I have also seen how much the kids loved it and perhaps being an ancient 29 years old is what shapes my perception. I don’t have hellspawn of my own, so I am not hardened against all of the strange shows they watch over and over again, watching grown men and women interact with puppets or CGI characters with an over-the-top enthusiasm. I admit that it may have been different if I had that kind of exposure beforehand, so taking that into consideration for my final verdict this film is probably a lot more enjoyable in the eyes of a child.
A child won’t think about half of the things I would, and as far as they care they get to see a crazy man talk to funny animals as they get into ridiculous situations. Before leaving there was a little boy and his younger sister, making animal noises to each other and pretending that they understood one another. They laughed and kept telling their mum which animals they liked the best and would ask which one she liked, before changing their minds. In retrospect it wasn’t a terrible film, but it wasn’t great. However, would I recommend this to a family with young kids? Yes, I would. You may be used to kid’s shows and movies already, but I can at least say that this one still had some very good moments (keep an eye out for an angry squirrel), that even adults may like. But, even if it’s not your thing, your kids will likely have a blast.