PG, 101 minutes
Review by Jane Freebury
The Dr Dolittle character was first created by a young British engineer while fighting in the trenches in World War I. Army engineer Hugh Lofting was appalled by what he saw on the battlefield and concocted the stories in his letters home, rather than relate the horrors that he had witnessed.
It set in train a popular series of children’s books, but the first Dolittle film with a stellar cast in 1967 failed to launch at the box office.
a champion of the environment and everything in it, could be just the guy to have around right now
Eddie Murphy turned that around in the late 1990s with back-to-back Dolittle comedies. Critics didn’t care for them but the movies were hits everywhere.
Now you might think that someone who talks to animals could be just the guy to have around right now. A champion of the environment and everything in it, an eccentric in touch with his evolutionary DNA. Time will tell.
Dr John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) in 2020 has become quite the recluse. He lives in isolation on a country estate, preferring the company of Poly the parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the gorilla (Rami Malek), and Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena) and others. All creatures are CGI.
It can’t last, of course. Some pesky kids come knocking. There’s a local lad, Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collet), with an injured squirrel that needs treatment and a chirpy girl who brings an urgent message from Buckingham Palace. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), lady-in-waiting to the queen, tells Dolittle that the monarch (Jessie Buckley) is gravely ill and asking for him, actually her veterinarian. Queen Victoria has sensed she is not in good hands while Lord Badgely (Jim Broadbent) and physician Dr Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen) hang around.
Though he resists and adopts a foetal pose, Dolittle is drugged, shaven and dragged off to the palace. Becoming aware of a plot against Victoria’s life once there he undertakes to save her life. He will need to find the antidote to poison that she needs to live, found in an exotic fruit in a far-away land. Something vaguely like a rambutan, from somewhere vaguely like the Indonesian archipelago.
The fruit of the Eden Tree is the very fruit that Dolittle’s wife, Lily, died trying to find seven years before. Dolittle sets sail with his menagerie for crew and young Tommy, who has enlisted as his apprentice.
it’s the creatures with fur and feathers that don’t engage, a fatal flaw
In this animated and live action kids’ adventure, Downey is always watchable and just fine as the doctor. Antonio Banderas as Rassouli, king of the bandits, is a gravely-voiced menace. No issues with the dodgy, plotting courtiers played by Broadbent and Sheen either.
It’s the creatures with fur or feathers or fins that don’t engage. It’s a fatal flaw. They are there for the kids.
A long list of top actors including Emma Thompson, Marion Cottillard and Ralph Fiennes and more lined up to voice parrots, foxes, monkeys, tigers, gorillas, polar bears and ostriches. If only their characters were more fun.
It’s fine for the animals to look cartoonish, not particularly lifelike. It doesn’t undermine the live action in a kids’ show.
Dolittle has been slow to arrive on screen. There are stories of re-writes and re-shoots and other delays. The critics, sensing a production unsteady on its newborn legs, have piled on one by one.
It doesn’t deserve the universal panning it has been getting. Though the characters don’t exactly come alive, the jokes, visual and verbal, do pull some surprises.
When it was over, children near me didn’t muck up or run from the cinema shrieking. They stayed to dance during the jaunty final credits.
They would have loved the look. The study in Dolittle Manor with its high-line model train track, musical instruments and wacky décor is great. Adventures on the high seas aboard the Water Lily and the visit to Rassouli’s island hangout would have been thrilling to watch too.
It may be the adults who can’t accept Downey Jr, best known as world-weary Iron Man Tony Stark, as a weirdo who just wants to speak to animals.
From director Stephen Gaghan (writer of serious films like Traffic and Syriana, and co-writer here) this adventure fantasy has its daft heart in the right place. It’s not hilarious but it is cheerful, good to look at, and has surely at least managed a pass.
First published in the Canberra Times on 19 January 2020