My local cinema had a large cardboard standee for Dolittle in the window that was left to stand after the cinema closed due to virus restrictions. As bird droppings and general filth accumulated on the glass over the next few months, Robert Downey Jr’s face slowly grew stubble and the months wore on, before rivers of encrusted filth began leaving blackened track marks under his eyes. Yet Dolittle still banked some decent coin before the cinemas closed. Somehow not a doctor anymore, this Dolittle managed to make a healthy wodge for the pandemic year of 2020; $250 million worldwide made it one of the top ten films of the year, even if that’s probably a fraction of what was hoped for.
So while there seems to be a lot of online hate for Stephen Gaghan’s revamp of the classic Hugh Lofting story, the shelf-life seems enviable as we catch up with Dolittle; a run on the BBC iPlayer over Xmas followed by a top ten slot on UK Netflix right now. Downey Jr gives a likably eccentric performance as Dolittle, now a hairy Welsh vegetarian, and the story follows familiar lines. Dolittle is a friend to all the animals, but is broken with remorse due to a lost love and closes his popular animal sanctuary. A royal illness sends him and his menagerie on an expedition across the ocean, searching for a cure that will revive the ailing Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley).
There’s big name support from Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent and Antonio Banderas as a mad King encountered on the journey, but Dolittle at least retains some fidelity to the original stories by making Dolittle’s kindness to animals his saving grace. Downey Jr may be coasting on past glories, but he gives a strong, calculatedly eccentric performance that should please little ones, without being too annoying for adults.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing here is that the animals don’t go for much; it takes 40 long minutes to get the Dolittle crew assembled, but there’s little wonder or magic about the animals themselves, with the works of multiple voice-over stars going for little. Neither a triumph nor a disaster, this is a sturdy, if uninspired family film that has still got plenty of work to do to connect with home audiences. It’s not a patch on the stage version, which I saw at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and featured tv presenter Phillip Schofield passing over my head on a giant flying moth, a transformative moment for all concerned.