DOLITTLE review by Shyam Vedantam – Robert Downey Jr. is a new, more serious Doctor Dolittle

DOLITTLE review by Shyam Vedantam – Robert Downey Jr. is a new, more serious Doctor Dolittle

Doctor Dolittle, originally the central character in a series of children’s books by Hugh Lofting that began in the 1920s, has been in the public consciousness for decades. Adaptations of this popular series began early in a variety of mediums – radio, stage, television and film. Perhaps the most popular recent adaptation was the film adaptation directed by Betty Thomas and starring Eddie Murphy. These films were inspired by the titular character and his abilities to speak to animals, but otherwise deviated entirely from the original stories; this resulted in decent box office success but mixed critical success.

The newest version of the story takes a different tact and returns more to the original text. DOLITTLE takes place in Victorian England and stars Robert Downey Jr. as the titular character. As the opening narration explains, he is a veterinarian with the ability to speak to all animals, but a tragedy that ends the life of his wife sends Dr. Dolittle into reclusion in his home. However, when the Queen of England falls ill, he must set sail to obtain a mythical fruit that holds the cure. Along the way, he faces off against Rassoulim (king of pirates, played by Antonio Banderas) and Dr. Blair Müdfly (opposing veterinarian, played by Michael Sheen).

Many animals from the original stories also return with a star-studded voice cast – Polynesia the macaw (Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the gorilla (Rami Malek), Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena), Plimpton the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), Dab-Dab the duck (Octavia Spencer), Jip the dog (Tom Holland), and James the dragonfly (Jason Mantzoukas) amongst others. The animation of the animals is done well. They are life-like enough by today’s standards and are believable on screen representations. However, they are not too life-like to fall into the “uncanny valley.” This was a mistake that plagued the recent version of THE LION KING – the animals became too realistic and took away from their expressiveness. In DOLITTLE, the animation and voice acting are very animated and expressive, much to the joy of children watching the film.

The screenplay by Stephen Gaghan (who also directed the film), Dan Gregor, and Doug Mand moves spryly and with humor at every turn. It seemed like every scene had at least one joke in it. Furthermore, recurring jokes pay off throughout the movie. This production seems like a real departure from Gaghan’s previous films (GOLD, WHITE CITY, SYRIANA), but he really understands how to make this type of film, which is very colorful and bright. The pace of the story doesn’t get bogged down by heavy-handed exposition, backstory, or side quests. He also directs the actors to properly ham up their roles. Even if Banderas and Sheen are villains, they are twirling their mustaches the right amount. Circumstances are never too perilous for younger viewers, yet there are some jokes interspersed for the adults in the theater.

This role is an interesting one for Downey. His involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has kept him very busy for much of the past decade. The roles he picks now will help define what the next phase of his career will be – finding another franchise, more dramatic turns, or comedy. He does a decent job carrying this film. One criticism would be the odd accent he adopts; perhaps his regular voice has become too popular, but the accent he uses for this film always slightly distracts. However, he does a good job acting without human scene partners for large chunks of the screen time, which is deceptively challenging. His playfulness in every sequence leaps off the screen.

Ultimately, this film’s success will depend on the audience member and their expectations. Young children will undoubtedly adore it, and older kids will likely be entertained as well. With admittedly low expectations, this should be a pleasant surprise for adults who take their children to this movie. However, don’t expect great character work, deep explorations of any thought provoking ideas, or nuance. Gaghan knows what type of film this is and executes it.

DOLITTLE delivers family-friendly fun with something for toddlers to grandparents.


DOLITTLE opens January 17, 2020

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