Today’s generation of children aren’t likely to know about the 1967 film of Doctor Dolittle and will be mostly basing their knowledge of the character on the Eddie Murphy comedy and its subsequent sequels (there are four of them). Having said that, Murphy’s franchise is now over 20 years old (yikes!) and its target audience has grown up. Surely two decades is the right amount of time to recalibrate and return the cinematic property to its original Victorian-era setting.
Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books sit proudly on my bookshelves amongst many other children’s literature. I was raised on the ’67 film, read all of his books and adored his wonderful quirks. Much like Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin, Doctor Dolittle unlocked the door to imaginations and took readers on many perilous adventures. They were as subversive as they were attainable, and upon learning of a new Hollywood adaptation I was as equally cynical as I was excited; the prospect of a faithful adaptation was all too rousing.
I have now seen the film – which is simply titled Dolittle – and can report that it is a totally blindfolded and disorientated misfire. Director Stephen Gaghan (Gold) has thrown everything at the wall, hoping that some of it sticks, with all but the Victorian period landing on the floor.
The story is narrated by Polynesia (Emma Thompson), Dolittle’s trusted parrot companion, and we are introduced to Dr John Dolittle through an animated sequence that gives an all-too brief rundown of his history. He’s a wonder of the world and with a unique ability to talk to animals, he is gifted a large sanctuary by the Queen of England, at which he resides. Upon the tragic death of his wife, Dolittle closes the sanctuary to the public and becomes an eccentric recluse.
The live action begins and introduces us to a dishevelled and antisocial Dolittle, who finds himself summoned by Buckingham Palace and subsequently sent on a high-seas adventure to find a mystical cure for Her Majesty’s mysterious illness. With his cohort of animal friends along for the ride, as well as a gifted teenage boy, Dolittle’s journey has him venturing to the far ends of the world to a lost island where danger lies and rumoured dragons dwell.
It all sounds well and good on paper, and the story itself is partially adapted from the second book in the series, however the book-to-screen translation is just too idiotic and foolish to work. The successes of the previous adaptations are owed to one being a fanciful musical, and the other being a contemporary cornball comedy. As proven here, a doctor who can talk to animals is just too ludicrous to take seriously and does not convert integrally.
The cast of voice talents makes up a who’s-who of impressive players, including Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Marion Cotillard and Kumail Nanjiani, to name just a few. And they are joined by live-action performances from Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jessie Buckley, Jim Broadbent and Harry Collett. It is one of the most stellar ensembles of players seen on screen for a very long time, and yet each and every one of them is misdirected and inadequate.
Robert Downey Jr. mumbles his way through a weird and unidentifiable European-esque accent, which (I guess) is supposed to be comical but just sounds brainless. Michael Sheen takes overacting and the concept of “emoting” to dizzying heights as the horribly contrived and poorly rendered villain, while every single voice seems drastically mismatched with their respective creature counterparts.
If Dolittle has an inkling of saving grace it would be the production design. The Victorian era is depicted nicely, with the right balance of authenticity and exaggeration. Having said that, so much of Dolittle’s world is computer generated and shot against green screen, and whatever moments of true wonder are presented are immediately dashed by some kind of goofy one-liner joke or another.
Talking animals are funny to kids, as too are fart jokes. Dolittle has ample of both and I have no doubt that at least some kids will lap it up. This won’t let them know that the original books were sophisticated and written for mature readers, or that Dolittle’s exploits were thematic, baring social commentaries. He once freed slaves from a trade ship, recounted stories of genocide and witnessed humans be savagely mauled to death by vicious animals. None of that has been depicted on film, nor likely will it be.
Some things simply cannot be translated and Dolittle offers up a big example. It also doesn’t know if it wants to be Pirates of the Caribbean or The Adventures of Tintin… or The Hobbit, for that matter. The resulting mish-mash is one heck of a struggle from start to finish.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★☆☆☆☆
‘Dolittle’ is in Australia cinemas from January 16 and US cinemas from January 17.