Film Review: Dolittle

Newest Version Of Animal-Filled Fable Does A Little

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Downey is gonna be mighty upset if the dog nails a Best Supporting Actor nod.
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British author Hugh Lofting’s juvenile fantasy series Doctor Dolittle, first published in 1920, isn’t quite as popular as it once was among the kiddy set. The author’s rather quaint works are best known these days for inspiring the 1967 Rex Harrison musical about a doctor who could “walk with the animals, talk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals.” The film was a notorious box office bomb that made back less than half of its extravagant budget and left $200 million in unsold tie-in merchandise in its wake. The books also served as faint inspiration for Eddie Murphy’s 1998 hit Dr. Dolittle, which was successful enough to require four sequels (most of which went straight to video and did not star Murphy). Now, Universal Pictures tries to revive the aged franchise for a new generation with the splashy Dolittle.

The film arrives courtesy of writer-director Stephen Gaghan (who gave us gritty sociopolitical dramas
Traffic and Syriana—what better building blocks for a talking animal fantasy?). Workin’ man Robert Downey Jr. (eager for another franchise?) stars as the titular animal doctor. Loosely adapted from Lofting’s 1923 book The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (with which it shares … a handful of characters and little else), the film starts out by introducing us to young British lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett). While out (unwillingly) on a hunting expedition with his uncle, young Tommy accidentally injures a small squirrel. Encouraged, strangely enough, by a talking parrot, Tommy is led though the woods to the tumbledown mansion of infamous medico Dr. Doolittle. Seems that, after the disappearance of his beloved wife on one of her many globe-trotting sea voyages, Dolittle retreated from society and stopped treating animals at his sprawling home/nature preserve.

Encouraged by the plucky young lad (and his remaining menagerie of animal friends) Dolittle agrees to save the little squirrel with his medical genius. This now-rare burst of altruism does not encourage Dolittle to assist his other unexpected visitor, a young lady named Rose (Carmel Laniado). Lady Rose, it seems, needs the good doctor’s assistance in helping a gravely ill Queen Victoria (Irish actress/singer Jessie Buckley from last year’s lovely
Wild Rose). Thanks to a bit of legalistic/storytelling convenience (Dolittle will lose his home if the queen expires), the grumpy doc eventually consents to leave the safety and solitude of his mansion and see the queen.

Seems that Victoria’s been poisoned by a couple of rather blatant regicidal conspirers, Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) and Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen). For the sake of the film’s plot, it just so happens that the only cure for the queen is a magical fruit that grows on one magical island in the middle of magical nowhere. Naturally, Dolittle and his animal friends (an opinionated parrot, a nearsighted dog, a one-legged duck, a frigid polar bear, a cowardly gorilla and a mouthy ostrich) set sail for adventure. Of course Tommy, who dreams of being the doc’s apprentice, tags along as well.

Dolittle gives Hollywood ample opportunity to do what it loves best—casting random stars as the voices of animated animals. For this one we get the likes of Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard and Ralph Fiennes. All of them contribute a couple of juvenile laughs to the proceedings. None is required to work very hard to earn a paycheck.

The screenplay (courtesy of at least four writers) doesn’t work all that hard either. It ticks all the expected boxes and features just enough CGI action to cut well into a trailer. The plot is the usual mixture of episodic encounters, each contributing a tiny clue to the location of the film’s quest-ending fruity MacGuffin. Also, there’s a dragon. There are a decent amount of jokes dispensed by our wacky collection of talking animal friends—but none is constructed with much effort, and few, if any, linger in the imagination.

Dolittle at least keeps things on a (mostly) even keel, sticking with some of the look and feel of its source material—unlike Disney’s recent efforts to jazz up old fairy tales (Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent), which are far too over-the-top to seem like anything other than frantic, hyper-produced studio cash grabs. Dolittle has just enough fantastical visuals and innocuous one-liners to appease the family audiences it’s aimed at. A legendary box office bomb? Doubtful. A smash-hit five-film franchise? Probably not that either. A standard-issue movie studio reboot based on a vaguely familiar concept that delivers mild entertainment and brief diversion? Nailed it.
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