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Dolittle Review: RDJ Plays Discount Jack Sparrow in Kid-Friendly Reboot -BB

The character of Doctor Dolittle was created by author Hugh Lofting and made his debut in the 1920 children’s book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle. In the century since Lofting introduced his hero, Doctor Dolittle has been adapted many times, perhaps most famously in the Dr. Dolittle film series starring Eddie Murphy as a modern-day version of the character. Now, the doctor who can talk to animals gets a reboot in Dolittle. The film is directed by Stephen Gaghan (Gold) from a script he co-wrote with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand (How I Met Your Mother). Robert Downey Jr. turns in a bizarre, but entertaining performance in Dolittle, though it doesn’t much elevate this generic family-friendly adventure.

Dolittle tells the story of veterinarian Dr. John Dolittle, with Downey Jr. in a role that seems poised to be this generation’s Captain Jack Sparrow, though his performance never quite has the magic that made Johnny Depp’s roguish pirate so universally beloved. In this film, Dolittle is a man plagued by the death of his wife, who’d drowned at sea while searching for the legendary Eden Tree and its magical properties. Years later, Dolittle is disturbed in his animal sanctuary – where he’s lived with only his animal companions as company – by Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) seeking the doctor’s help to save a squirrel. On the same day, Dolittle is called on by Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who insists the doctor visit the dying Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) of England. In order to save the queen, Dolittle must retrace his wife’s final adventure and discover the Eden Tree, but he’ll have the help of Stubbins and all his animal friends.

The story of Dolittle is fairly standard for a family-friendly action-adventure movie: the heroes must retrieve a magical item in order to save the day, and their journey will take them to fantastical locations. In the case of Dolittle, there are really only a few fantastical locations, but there’s nothing especially magical about any of them aside from the various creatures. This ultimately prevents Dolittle from feeling like the epic fantasy adventure movie it so clearly wants to be. Instead, much of the magic is derived from the fact that Dolittle can talk to animals – and bugs apparently. (The movie’s own rules of magic aren’t clearly defined at all; at one point, Dolittle speaks to a squid, but not any of the fish around it – is he not able to speak to fish? And that’s not even broaching the subject of how exactly Stubbins is able to learn to speak animal, which presumably means any human can speak animal if they just try hard enough.) For a fantasy movie, Dolittle doesn’t do much world-building, but it doesn’t quite matter as long as you don’t think too hard about it.

Rather, Dolittle puts much more focus on the dynamic between its many characters, both human and animal. There is a sweet story about connection and vulnerability at the center of the movie, as Dolittle is forced to rejoin the human world. But while there is a nice message about not closing yourself off from others – and about bravery in the case of the anxious gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek) – most of the character dynamics are played for laughs, from the odd couple friendship of the polar bear Yoshi (John Cena) and ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani) to the duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), who mistakes vegetables for medical equipment. However, very little of it is memorable, and though the humor’s bound to get some laughs, it’ll play better with younger audiences than older moviegoers. The biggest standouts of the voice cast are Craig Robinson as the squirrel Kevin, who harbors a grudge against Stubbins, and Jason Mantzoukas as the bumbling dragonfly James, though that’s largely because their characters play to their particular comedic strengths. The whole cast of Dolittle is solid enough, but this is Downey Jr’s movie.

Still, though there is a compelling pathos to Downey Jr’s Dolittle, the role necessitates the actor to work off an almost entirely CGI cast of animal characters, which is much less interesting than the movie would have you believe. Often, it comes off as clumsy when the CGI doesn’t totally line-up and disjointed on a tonal level, especially in the juxtaposition of Dolittle’s tragic history and the comedic relief of the majority of the animals. There’s certainly some fun to be had in Dolittle, and the movie makes certain decisions, especially in the third act, that are so wildly preposterous and ridiculous – but that may not necessarily be a good thing. Ultimately, Dolittle seems catered entirely to the younger crowd, which is fine and makes the movie perfect for a family outing.

As for whether Dolittle will appeal to older crowds, though, that seems less likely, despite Downey Jr’s appeal as a fixture of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also doesn’t have much movie magic, never surpassing the bar of a generic family-friendly adventure. So while Dolittle may have been meant to start a new franchise for Downey Jr., there’s not much here compelling viewers to clamor for another installment. It’s fun enough to keep audiences mostly entertained for its hour and 45 minute runtime, but there’s nothing particularly memorable to latch onto – not the CGI animals, not the fantasy world and not even Downey Jr’s performance.

Dolittle starts playing U.S. theaters Thursday evening January 16th. It is 106 minutes long and rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!

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