By John H. Foote
In 1967, 20th Century Fox produced a lavish big budget film musical entitled Dr. Dolittle based on the children’s books by Hugh Lofting. How bad this film was, is, I am not sure has ever fully been recognized. Director Richard Fleischer wrote about it in his autobiography, exploring in detail, with a sardonic sense of humour the dreadfully arrogant Rex Harrison, who must have sensed what he was into and behaved atrociously, and the awful effects, the runaway budget and the growing realization he was directing a bust. Incredibly, Fox paid the right people within the Academy, and Dr. Dolittle (1967) was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture. Left off the Best Picture list were Cool Hand Luke (1967) and In Cold Blood (1967). I … kid … you … not.
I think it is a safe bet that this remake, or reimagining of the book featuring Robert Downey Jr. will most certainly NOT be nominated for an Oscar, though it might have a chance for a Razzie or three.
Is there a more gifted actor than Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ)? Directors have marveled at his ability to go off script and improvise while in character and often give them pure magic. While shooting with James Toback the actor asked the director to improvise saying “If you let me, I can show you some magical and wonderful things” and he did indeed. Very early in his youth he mesmerized critics with his stunning performance in Less Than Zero (1987) as a doomed drug addict born into wealth. While everyone sang his praises, just the same everyone knew his dirty secret, drugs. Heavy drugs. Still they cast him, leading to a brilliant performance as legendary silent screen star Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin (1992) which brought him his first Academy Award nomination. This was a case of a director, Richard Attenborough, not being up to the talent of his star, and RDJ was astonishing, the film was ordinary. His descent into drugs continued in earnest through the nineties until finally he landed in jail for nearly a year, his career rescued by his friend Mel Gibson, no stranger to trouble. Though he bounced back and forth between drugs and walking a straight line, he finally broke free of the demons and began doing the work he was capable of doing. Brilliant in Zodiac (2007), superb in Tropic Thunder (2008) which brought another Oscar nomination, he would finally find the role that has come to define him, Tony Stark, or Iron Man (2008). Over the entire, massive The Avengers franchise, RDJ grounded the series, giving it a heart and soul and in the final film gave a performance worthy of Oscar attention that did not come. The attention he will get for this film, Dolittle, is not fair, because he is a gifted actor, but he should also be reading the scripts to tripe like this before he agrees to them.
Man did Universal Studios not need this on the heels of Cats (2019) their god-awful holiday release that might lose in excess of one hundred million dollars. Cats, in a word, stinks like an overflowing litter box, and I am sad to say Dolittle does not fare much better. You have to wonder what Robert Downey Jr. was thinking in agreeing to do the film, starring and producing this mess? This is a whip smart man, with two monster franchises in Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, he certainly does not need the money, nor has he ever been the type to go after a certain audience. What is he doing here? And the accent? A Scottish brogue that becomes Irish sometimes and then disappears altogether. And yes, we get that he hears the animals, but do we need as well? The only reason to have them talking so the audience can hear them is to hire strong actors in voice roles! The one thing the original 1967 film did right was only the good doctor could hear the animals speak.
Grieving the death of his wife, the good doctor who roams his estate talking to his animals is called to discover a cure for the young Queen Victoria and discovers she has been poisoned. Quicker than you can say “stupid narrative” he is off on a voyage to find a cure, because if the young Queen dies, his estate becomes the property of the government. Of course, OF COURSE, animals help him along the way, though it becomes very distracting to hear them talk to each other and not just the doctor. Does stupid sound fair?
The animals are CGI creations, some such as the gorilla are very good, others such as the tiger, are terrible. For such a lavish film, so beautifully designed, one would think they might spend a bit more time on the visuals?
That is it, that is the plot. Will he find a cure? KIDS FILM! WHAT DO YOU THINK?
How long before aisles of plush dolls based on the animals within this film are sitting gathering dust in Walmart? Keep watching because it will happen. Films like this, films this bad, are generational, and with Cats we have two in a month! Unbelievable! Who is green lighting the movies at Universal? No one with a brain I can tell you that.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.