Dolittle re-introduces the world to Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), a reclusive man who lives in solitude in his lush manor in 19th-century England. Dolittle’s gift is that he can understand the language of the animals, with whom he speaks to on a daily basis. However, when young Queen Victoria becomes sick, the doctor and his furry friends are called back into action as they embark on an epic adventure in order to save her life..
Directed by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana), Dolittle is a film with aspirations of classic childhood adventure films but, unfortunately, never quite lives up to its full potential. Derived by critics, there really is more to like about the film than some have given it credit for. On the one hand, Gaghan creates a world of whimsy that has echoes of the charm and heart of the original work, combining the childlike joy of colourful animals with an emotional journey for its lead. Distancing itself in style and tone from the successful Eddie Murphy films of the late 90s, Downey Jr. proves to be a good choice for the titular character of Dolittle himself. Always willing to play with child-like wonder, Downey brings his signature charisma to the role in such a way that he always makes you want to go on the journey into the unknown with him.
On the other hand, however, the film struggles to maintain a consistent tone, dropping the more classic feel for bathroom humour that simply doesn’t work, especially in the awkward dragon finale. (Although not uncommon by any stretch, rumours of rewrites to include more ‘silliness’ into the film plagued it’s marketing upon its release.) Also, the film seems to lack an overall energy which seems odd, considering the pedigree of its cast.
Even so, what appeals to me about Dolittle is its interest in exploring what it means to deal with the pain of our past. Once known as a grand adventurer, the death of his wife has caused Dolittle to become a recluse from the human race, fearing any experience of loss of relationship in the future. Broken by his past, Dolittle has lost his passion for life and only agrees to the journey because he has been urged into action once again by the Queen herself. While this may seem heavy-handed on paper, the film does handle the topic of grief and loss at a level appropriate for children and may even provide some healthy questions for engaging the struggles in their own life.
What’s more, Dolittle also points to the fact that healing best comes through community. Whereas some films simply point to healing as ‘moving on’, Dolittle acknowledges that the best healing comes when we realize that there are people holding us up along the way and share our burdens with them. (In fact, without any spoilers, Dolittle’s engagement with the dragon even highlights this idea of grieving together as a manner of healing. If only that scene hadn’t… sigh… if only…) As he processes his grief along his adventure, Dolittle’s journey helps him to appreciate the joys of the past and accept the grace required to move forward.
Because of its interest in helping show what it means to process our feelings, Dolittle does have something positive to say to the children of this generation. With a heart of adventure, the film has so much potential yet it never comes to fruition. So, unfortunately, while there are some who will enjoy the ride, this may ultimately not be a trip worth taking.
Dolittle is available on VOD and Blu-ray now.