At least five different generations have been fascinated by Dr John Dolittle over the past century – or have been the target audience for the intended enthrallment. Exactly a hundred years after Hugh Lofting introduced the much beloved character in the first of his several books, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Robert Downey Jr has become the latest to depict the vet in this month’s release.
Downey Jr’s take in Dolittle is the third after Rex Harrison (1967) and Eddie Murphy (1998, 2001). The films aspire to capture the essence of a character that Lofting scribed across 15 books in 32 years, with the last, Doctor Dolittle’s Puddleby Adventures, published in 1952 – five years after the author’s death.
The challenge for Dolittle in 2020, hence, was not just to live up to 32 years of immensely popular literature, but also films that despite getting mixed reviews at the time collectively have Oscar nominations and hordes of adolescent aficionados to their name. And it is perhaps a quest in which the latest film has failed to live up to the mark.
Indeed, the previous Dolittle films weren’t intended for those critiquing them at all, and targeted the younger audiences that wholeheartedly enjoyed all of them. Therefore, the same would be true for the latest rendition, with the increasingly mixed reviews actually reminiscent to the reception hat its predecessors received. So it is for the children in the audience today to decide how much they enjoyed Dolittle, and for time to tell to what extent it leaves an imprint on them like the previous two generations.
With that being said, one can’t help but wonder if this one might turn out to be an unwanted exception. For, as we’ve so often discussed in this space, in their continued bid to reproduce old classics for the modern day audience, the filmmakers of today are perhaps ignoring the simple fact that the ideas that were mesmerizing for 1920s literature, or 1960s – and even 1990s – films might not quite be the same for the internet generation with their infinite pool of infotainment.
Dolittle reintroduces Dr John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr), the vet who can communicate with animals. Following the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak), Dr Dolittle wants nothing to do with other humans, until he meets Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) – a young boy who seeks the vet’s help with a squirrel he has mistakenly injured. Simultaneously, Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) also needs Dr Dolittle’s help.
Communicating with animals was hardly going to be a unique idea for today’s children, even if the growing sensitivity towards all creatures would help the film propagate its theme. Unfortunately, the focus for the filmmakers appeared to be on the technology needed for the computer-generation animations for the animals – albeit with an illustrious cast of voiceovers from the likes of Rami Malek, Emma Thompson, Marion Cotillard, Selena Gomez, John Cena and Octavia Spencer – more so than any elements in the script that would cater exclusively to the 2020s generation.
What the film lacks is something other than the latest computer graphics to offer that the previous films didn’t. This is the latest example of how films that look to build on the success of franchises, names or stories of the past – not the exact remakes – seem to take it for granted that the vast majority of those buying the tickets for their offerings wouldn’t have watched the past movies.
Even so, a lot could’ve been different had the normally exemplary Robert Downey Jr brought his A-game to the fore. For a character that few would’ve been better fit for, Downey Jr gives one of his least memorable performances.
It might be a good idea to take the kids to the theatre for Dolittle, but do make sure you introduce its predecessors to them as well. The parents and grandparents should expect themselves to be underwhelmed, if they’ve grown up with any rendition of Dr Dolittle from the past.