*Sigh* Do I have to say it again? Here’s ANOTHER remake because there are no new stories to tell in Hollywood anymore. But this isn’t a remake/reboot of those Dr. Dolittle films that starred Eddie Murphy, it’s a sorta-kinda remake of the original 1967 musical, but without the music, fun, or intelligence.
With a super-quick backstory we find out that animal doctor, John Dolittle (Robert Downey, jr) used to have a flourishing practice, thanks to a young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) and Lily (Kasia Smutniak), John’s beautiful and adventure-seeking wife. But after Lily died, John abandoned his practice to the outside world and holed-up on his immense private estate with his animal friends like Polynesia, the English-speaking parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), a neurotic gorilla named Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), Yoshi (John Cena), a knit-cap wearing polar bear, a fussy ostrich named Plimpton who says “bro” alot (Kumail Nanjiani), and Jip (Tom Holland) a bespectacled dog who can sniff out illnesses, plus others.
John is finally drawn out of his self-imposed exile after meeting teenager Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) who has an injured squirrel (Craig Robinson), and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), the Queen’s teenage emissary, who sends for the good doctor because the Queen is gravely ill. Looks like the game’s afoot as the Queen is being slowly poisoned by her doctor, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), who’s in league with nasty Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent). The only way to cure the Queen? The rare Eden fruit from some equally rare island that isn’t supposed to exist. Really? Okay, so, it’s going to be Jason & the Argonauts, is it?
Right, so John, Tommy, and that wacky crew of animals set sail for that island, but first they gotta make a pit-stop at another island ruled by Lily’s angry and powerful father, King Rassouli (an unrecognizable Antonio Banderas) to retrieve Lily’s log book, which supposedly has the location of that mysterious island. After some hijinks here, and nearly being eaten by a tiger (Ralph Fiennes) who needs therapy, the gang is thwarted by Müdfly. But that doesn’t faze the doctor, who is determined to get to that island one way or another, even though there’s rumor of a dragon guarding the tree containing the fruit.
This movie is like walking into Dolittle’s house: a terrible mess. The screenwriters, director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Havoc), and newbies Dan Gregor & Doug Mand (TV series like How I Met Your Mother and Crazy Ex-girlfriend) have written an unfunny, lame, and totally rushed script. I guess they felt that having animals spouting hip 21st Century jargon in Victorian England worked. Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t! The plot bounces wildly from one scene to the next SO fast and without any exposition, reason, or cause, that you have NO idea what just happened or why. Did you just MISS a scene? The plot holes are extraordinary HUGE and gaping wide! It’s as if this was originally a Netflix three-part series, was badly edited down to 109 minutes, and then gone straight to DVD.
And the direction? Jeepers! Whose idea was it to let Gaghan (who directs mostly violent dramas) direct this kid-friendly fare? In some attempt to do so, the jokes & gags are WAY over the top including butt jokes, fart jokes, and cartoonish over-acting. All that’s missing is wacky sound effects! Only really young children will like this jumbled mess of a movie that doesn’t explain any of it’s pitfalls. Characters do and say things that make NO sense at all, except that it needs to move the plot along. Result? It’s the worst dialogue, set-ups, and staging ever!
RDJ (with an accent I’m STILL trying to figure out. What is that? Scottish? Welsh? French? Greek?) and Banderas are the only ones giving a performance. Sheen can’t decide if he’s menacing or a dimwitted buffoon from scene to scene. . and he completely disappears after act two! The teens are just stagnant wallpaper and Lily, who COULD have been nicely fleshed out, is seen only twice. You’d think in this age of feminism she’d be an integral part of the story, but nope! Ugh. First it was Disney destroying my childhood by ruining my favorite stories with their CGI/live-action remakes (Dumbo, Lion King, Beauty & the Beast), but hey! Now it’s Universal Studios turn!
Doctor Dolittle (1967)
Based on Hugh Lofting’s novels, it was a wonder how this kid-friendly musical was ever made, as it was plagued by massive problems. Over 1200 real animals were used (and died), many crew members quit, the producer sued the studio, the cast hated each other, and bigoted star Rex Harrison constantly made racist slurs. Geez!!
It’s 1868 Victorian England and Irishman merchant Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newly) takes a young boy, Tommy Stubbins (William Dix) to visit eccentric Doctor John Dolittle (Harrison) with an injured duck. Dolittle, a former people doctor, lives with an extended animal menagerie, including his chimpanzee valet, Chee-Chee, and a 198-year-old talking parrot named Polynesia. In a flashback, Dolittle explains how Polynesia taught him how to talk to the animals and how he lost all his human patients. John learns 498 different animal dialects, but his BIG plan is to search for the legendary Great Pink Sea Snail; a ginormous sea creature
After a nasty magistrate (Peter Bull) visits him about his horse, Dolittle meets his lovely niece, Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar), who can’t stand Dolittle for his lack of human empathy. However, Matthew likes her right away. Meanwhile, Dolittle is sent a rare Pushmi-Pullyu, a llama with a head on each end of its body. Dolittle takes the creature to a nearby circus run by Albert Blossom (Richard Attenborough) and the dancing llama becomes the star attraction. While there, the doctor smuggles a lonely seal out of the circus and back to the sea.
Dolittle’s later accused of murder (that seal incident), thrown into an insane asylum (“I can talk to animals”), and later escapes with the help of his friends and pets. Setting sail in search of that sea snail, Emma joins the motley crew, seeking adventure. Their destination? Sea-Star Island: a floating island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. They get shipwrecked on the island, and are all taken hostage by the local natives, led by the articulate William Shakespeare (Geoffrey Holder). Just as they’re about to be killed as hostile savages, Dolittle gets a whale to join the missing half of floating island back together with the mainland and badda-bing! They’re heroes!
While celebrating, who should arrive but (you guessed it), the Great Pink Sea Snail–who has a severe cold. Dolittle, after fixing the snail’s problem, discovers that the snail’s shell is watertight and can carry passengers. He sends everyone back to England with the snail, including Emma, who finally admits her true love for the doctor. They all leave, but Dolittle has plans to return home later using the Giant Luna Moth as transportation. Oh sure, it all looked good on paper and the books where fanciful enough, but after it was all filmed and shown to audiences, it bombed. And I mean, it bombed BIG time! A real pity as the movie isn’t that bad, except the length, a numbing 2hrs & 30min!
Staged and filmed like the British musicals Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Scrooge, or Oliver!, it has all the excellence and beauty of damn good production designs, cinematography, and some tasty, fun songs (My Friend the Doctor, If I Could Talk To The Animals, I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It). Then you also had proficient director Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green) who did a helluva job on this movie, and a great cast that didn’t disappoint. Newly provided the professional singing, comic relief & jokes, Dix was there ‘for the kids’, Eggar for her beauty, Bull was the bad guy, and Holder gave a refined, sophisticated performance. And Harrison… well, he pretty much did “Rex Harrison”, like he did in My Fair Lady. So what went wrong?
First, it was LONG. Very long. Second, it was released against Disney’s popular animated feature, The Jungle Book. Third, the books were said to contain “racist and insensitive content“, and fourth, it came out just after the lengthy and popular Sound of Music. It was the perfect storm to keep audiences away. However, watching it now, all it needs is about 30 minutes shaved off (and a better, cleaner ending) and it works. Leslie Bricusse (the British musical Scrooge) wrote the screenplay with whimsy and kid-friendly attitude, only rushing the ending (which BTW, had three! The studios couldn’t decide on which one).