Everyone has at least one movie that they watched on repeat throughout their childhood that they know, without a doubt, isn’t as good as they remember. This is especially true of those of us who grew up in the 2000s and watched movies like Cats and Dogs, The Pacifier, and Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle series. It’s hard not to look back fondly on those totally absurd family comedies that hold a special place in many of our hearts, even though we know in our minds that many of these films are just not that good. Universal’s new Dolittle film, starring Robert Downey Jr., is another one of these wonky flicks, but it happens to be hitting theaters about 15 years too late.
Dolittle tells the story of a renowned doctor (Downey) who has gone into hiding after the death of his wife, and remains there until he’s approached at the behest of the Queen of England. The Queen has fallen deathly ill and Dolittle must travel to the edges of the earth to get a special plant that will make her well again. If she dies, he loses his home/animal sanctuary, so he reluctantly accepts the mission. He’s joined along the way by a horde of quirky animals voiced by stars like Emma Thompson, John Cena, Tom Holland, Kumail Nanjiani, and Rami Malek. Oh, and Antonio Banderas is a pirate.
Dolittle is a bizarre movie and it is sometimes completely unhinged. It may not seem like it from the trailers, but this thing is all the way out there. A few minutes after a delightful animated intro (which would’ve made for an absolutely breathtaking feature), Downey begins speaking in animal languages, barking and chattering at his various animal friends. It only gets stranger from there, including scenes in which a subtitled octopus says, “Snitches get stitches,” a sequence that’s meant to be one of the more triumphant in the film featuring a terrified ape slow-motion kicking a tiger in the crotch, and Jason Mantzoukas (who plays the most ridiculous character in any sitcom you’ve watched this decade) voicing a lovesick dragonfly who wants to stop existing when he learns that his ex-girlfriend, an ant, is now engaged to a scorpion. The most bizarre scene of them all is the film’s dragon-fueled climax, but I’m just going to let that one speak for itself. The thing is, some of these wacky scenes actually make Dolittle a more enjoyable experience. Not all of them, not by a long shot, but the sincere insanity of Dolittle actually works.
It’s really tempting to compare Dolittle to Cats, strictly because of how insane and off-the-wall a few of the sequences are. There are moments in Dolittle that are truly and sincerely deranged, but, the more I think about it, that comparison isn’t really a fair one to make. Unlike Cats (and other genuine big screen disasters), Dolittle actually follows a completely coherent story from start to finish. It’s average and predictable, sure, but it’s coherent all the same. The CGI is also pretty impressive, allowing the various animals to look real while also expressing themselves as characters.
The biggest thing going for Dolittle, however, is the heart at its core. This movie has a lot of charm hidden beneath the surface, no matter how low it reaches for its fruits. Dolittle strikes the right balance between goofball humor and good-natured sincerity rather well. Its charm and antics aren’t always blended perfectly, and they often make for off-putting tonal shifts at the most unexpected times, but both elements are nevertheless present throughout. If Dolittle was all heart and lacked heartbroken dragonflies, it would be difficult to get through. If it contained only immature jokes with no charm or story to speak of, well, the Cats comparison would be more than fair. By combining what feels like two completely different movies into one, Dolittle creates something worth investing in.
Dolittle does feel like a long-lost relative of Kangaroo Jack, but who cares? Maybe I’m just a product of the era I grew up in, but these left-field family comedies don’t come around that often anymore. That’s surely for the best, as we got way too many of them throughout the 2000s, but one every now and then is a nice surprise. Dolittle is a messy and lazy comedy that doesn’t have much to say, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s the kind of movie that kids growing up today will look back on with the same fondness that many of us have for Daddy Day Care; they’ll know it’s not very good, but they’ll laugh nostalgically and enjoy it all the same.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Dolittle opens in theaters on January 17th.