“Dr. Dolittle” has been a family favorite for a century now, as Hugh Lofting’s iconic children’s books first appeared in 1920 with over a dozen installments through 1952.
It was only a matter of time before it became a movie musical starring “My Fair Lady” crooner Rex Harrison in 1967, which earned nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It was introduced to a new generation with the Eddie Murphy remake in 1998.
This month, we get a new take with Robert Downey Jr. in “Dolittle,” a reboot that doesn’t really need to exist and seems intent on making bizarre choices, but with the same idea of talking animals that might just be foolproof enough to charm the family.
The story opens with a young boy bringing a wounded squirrel to the laboratory of Dr. John Dolittle, a reclusive doctor who can talk to animals, yet carries the grief of his wife Lily having died at sea. Soon, they’re summoned by Buckingham Palace to diagnose Queen Victoria, who is dying of a mysterious illness after eating a poisonous plant. The only cure is the fruit from a special tree far away, thus they set sail on an adventure.
Robert Downey Jr. has shown a certain flair for sprucing up old properties, from “Iron Man” comics to “Sherlock Holmes” novels, which is why it’s so puzzling that he is rather charmless in this role. His beloved Tony Stark sarcasm is nowhere to be found, nor is it replaced by a Robin Williams zaniness or a Gene Wilder twinkle in the eye.
Instead, he collects a paycheck like a disinterested Johnny Depp, going through the motions and mumbling in a weird accent that’s often hard to hear what he’s saying.
Far more animated is Michael Sheen (“Underworld”) as the antagonist adventurer Dr. Blair Mudfly, who actually seems to care that he’s in the movie. Rounding out the human cast are Jim Broadbent (“Moulin Rouge!”) as a properly cunning Lord Thomas Badgley and Antonio Banderas (“Pain & Glory”) as Dolittle’s former father-in-law King Rassouli, who holds a grudge as a swashbuckling pirate king on a remote island.
Of course, the real stars are the talking animals: Emma Thompson as wise parrot Poly, Rami Malek as anxious gorilla Chee-Chee, John Cena as bouncy polar bear Yoshi, Kumail Nanjiani as finicky ostrich Plimpton, Octavia Spencer is zany duck Dab-Dab, Tom Holland as bespectacled dog Jip and Craig Robinson as feisty squirrel Kevin.
Along the way, they also meet Selena Gomez as helpful giraffe Betsy, Marion Cotillard as friendly fox Tutu and Jason Mantzoukas as jocular dragonfly James. Most menacing is Ralph Fiennes as tiger Barry, pouncing on his prey like Idris Elba’s Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book” (2016) and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar in “The Lion King” (2019).
As you’re watching the film, you’ll be hard pressed to pick out the voices, not because you don’t know your movie trivia, but because the camera doesn’t hold still enough. The CGI animals deliver creative one-liners, but they do so in rapid cutaways that become a bit chaotic. Talking animals work much better if you slow things down like “Babe” (1995) or dub voices over real animals like “Homeward Bound” (1993).
“Dolittle” is written by Oscar winner Stephen Gaghan, best known for R-rated thrillers like “Traffic” (2000) and “Syriana” (2005). You don’t necessarily think of him penning a PG-rated kids movie, so he teams up with TV sitcom writer Dan Gregor of “How I Met Your Mother” (2011-2014) and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (2016-2019). Gaghan also directs with the magical aid of Dominic Watkins’ production design and Danny Elfman’s score.
The script comes up with some clever zingers for the animals, particularly as the squirrel fears death. They also make multiple references to “bad boys,” perhaps a nod to their box-office competition “Bad Boys for Life” opening the same weekend. But even if the dialogue works in spots, the story structure suffers missed opportunities.
To start, the opening sequence attempts to set up Dolittle’s back story like “Up” (2009), but it’s done in rushed animation rather than doling out the information gradually throughout the course of the movie. After the initial setup, the catalyst of the queen’s imminent death should have been enough to spark the journey, but instead they tack on a forced motive that Dolittle’s laboratory will fall out of royal government funding.
Like Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” (2019), the two child actors don’t really get character arcs; they merely exist to appeal to the younger demographic. Harry Collett’s Tommy is a young hunter who can’t kill, which was done better in “Jojo Rabbit” (2019), while Carmel Laniado’s Lady Rose is sidelined waiting at the queen’s bedside. She should have gone on the journey with the gang so that Tommy and Rose could have bonded.
Most frustrating is the way Mudfly is easily vanquished. He simply steps back and falls into a hole during the final battle, never to be seen again (post-credit sequences don’t count). Yes, there’s a higher villain that gets his comeuppance back at the palace, but Mudfly is built up so much that it would have been more satisfying to see his demise.
Instead, he disappears from the plot, leaving Downey Jr. staring face to face with a dragon. I realize “How to Train Your Dragon” is hot right now, but why is there a dragon in “Dr. Dolittle?” Alas, at least the film finds a heartwarming way for Dolittle to diffuse the dragon threat, appealing to their shared grief over lost loved ones. But this good will is immediately undercut by a fart joke, yanking a set of bagpipes out of its butt.
Again, such low-hanging fruit might be enough for the family. It’s going to earn higher audience scores than critic scores, because critics are going in ready to skewer a January remake, while audiences are bringing their kids just looking for amusement. For that, I suppose it gets the job done. Just don’t expect anything new or inspired.
In other words, the filmmakers take a concept full of potential and … do little.