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Dolittle Review: A whale-powered voyage of disappointment

How this colossally budgeted animal adventure fails to deliver and why a film about the local Welshman who inspired Downey Jr’s performance would have been more interesting.

The movie draws from The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. CC: Universal Pictures.

Robert Downey Jr. leads an all-star cast across the Victorian high seas but Dolittle crashes short of its ambition and sinks below the Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy led adaptations of the animal-talking doctor.

Dr John Dolittle (Downey Jr.) begins the story as a recluse, whose wife’s tragic passing has caused him to shun life as a famed doctor and shut himself away, sharing only the company of animals. 

Before long though he is called to adventure by a young boy called Tommy (Harry Collett), struggling to find his place in the world and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), a young girl in a need of a cure for her dying Queen.  

We are introduced to a host of not particularly subtle CGI animals voiced by Oscar winners like Rami Malek and Emma Thomspon, alongside other stars including Tom Holland, John Cena and Selena Gomez.

The story ambles along predictably from one expensive set-piece to another, without any major plot guffs and manages to generate occasional laughs. There is one particular highlight involving a whale harness.

Unfortunately, at no point does it come close to the quality of similarly themed The Pirates of the Caribbean or to justifying its reported $175 million budget. One issue is that the film is hopeless at balancing everybody.

Plimpton the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani) and Kevin the squirrel (Craig Robinson) deliver some of Dolittle’s funniest lines but they are obscured by a mass menagerie of irrelevant characters that get crammed into the 101-minute run-time.

Meanwhile, the convincing and fierce Lady Rose is left behind to stare out of the window while everyone else goes questing.

Downey Jr. plays Welsh while Michael Sheen is an English villain. CC: Universal Pictures

And then there’s Robert Downey Jr.’s Welsh accent.

His impersonation of a Welshman might have provided an amusing surprise to the audience of a late-night chat show but for a full-length feature it’s distractingly awkward.

Downey Jr. revealed on a recent episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast that he didn’t want to do another English accent so he googled ‘weirdest Welsh doctor’ and discovered William Price, who became the inspiration for his performance.

Born in Rudry just over half an hour from Cardiff, William Price was an eccentric 19th century doctor whose escapades could have provided something substantially more interesting to the big screen.

Price was a prominent surgeon as well as a self-styled druid with a passion for social reform and walking around naked. His quirky legacy also includes contributions to the National Health Service in South Wales and a significant role in the legalisation of cremation.

A statue of William Price can be found in Llantrisant. CC: Wikimedia Commons

All this means to Dolittle is a cringey central character and a string of odd references to Wales.

These include shoehorned-in welsh phrases, whales with Welsh accents (get it!) and a leek, which Dolittle proudly proclaims is “the national emblem of Wales” before shoving it up a creature’s backside to relieve its constipation.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about that last scene however is that despite the ludicrous shenanigans, performed by a group of immensely talented actors, it still manages to be pretty dull.

And that is the biggest problem with Dolittle, the film is simply not that entertaining.

Conclusion 

Might keep children entertained for 101 minutes but don’t expect much. The reported $175 million budget would probably have been better spent on protecting some of the endangered species depicted in the film.

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