Robert Downey Jr. does little to right Dolittle's meandering tale

Dolittle. Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Starring Robert Downey Jr. Rating: 5 (out of 10)

You thought you could escape all the Oscar foofaraw by going to see a lighthearted children’s film, but lo and behold, the star-studded cast of Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle boasts six Oscar wins and over a dozen nominations from the actors alone.

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Robert Downey Jr. (nominated twice) assumes the role made famous by Rex Harrison in the 1967 film version, based on Hugh Lofting’s books. The star-studded cast includes Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Kumail Nanjiani, Ralph Fiennes Selena Gomez, John Cena and Marion Cotillard, to name a few. 

Lamentably, all the acting cred in the world can’t save a film weighed down by a rudderless script and intermittently flat visuals, resulting in a fun, furry mess of a movie best suited to viewers who are still too little to ride the big-kid rides. (Dolittle best suited for too-littles: I can see the headline now.)

It’s been seven years since the death of his beloved wife Lily and veterinarian Dr. Dolittle (Downey Jr.) has all but retreated from the human world, preferring the companionship of the animal kingdom. In his solitude he has picked up the neat trick of being able to talk to the animals around him, who, frankly, just want Dolittle to stop grieving and get on with his life.

Members of the menagerie include a shy gorilla called Chee-Chee (Malek), nervous ostrich Plimpton (Nanjiani), Dab-Dab the duck (Spencer), Yoshi the sun-loving polar bear (Cena), Betsy Giraffe (Gomez), brave Tutu the fox (Cotillard) and Polynesia the parrot (Thompson), the conscience on Dolittle’s shoulder. There’s also a nearsighted dog named Jip (fellow superhero Holland) and Barry the Tiger (Fiennes), a massive carnivore with mommy issues.

The outside world intrudes on Dolittle when Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) shows up at the door. Young Tommy hails from a family of hunters but would rather save animals than slaughter them; he inadvertently wounds a squirrel named Kevin (voiced by Craig Robinson) and seeks the vet’s help. After he finds out that Dolittle can talk to animals, Tommy eagerly appoints himself the doctor’s apprentice.

Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), lady-in-waiting to the young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), also comes knocking. She arrives with news that the queen is gravely ill and has asked specifically for Dolittle to treat her. Dolittle’s presence at the palace is a thorn in the side of royal physician Dr. Mudfly (Michael Sheen), a former schoolmate of Dolittle’s who has had no luck in curing the monarch. Eagerly waiting in the wings is Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent), who stands to ascend the throne if the queen dies.

Apparently the cure involves a trip to mythical Eden Tree Island – via the port of Monteverde – and so Dolittle, Stubbins and the animals set sail. One of the film’s highlights involves Dolittle’s tussle with Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), the famed Pirate King of Monteverde. Banderas – all kohl eyes and attitude – clearly has great fun playing a goon with a grudge who likes to sleep with big cats.

A pirate, a queen and a duck? The film definitely wanders into pantomime territory, aided by the excesses of Brits Broadbent and Sheen. And like a panto, the jokes come fast and furious, though only roughly half of them land where they were intended. Ditto the visual effects, which are hit and miss.

Part of the problem is Downey Jr. himself: this iteration of Dolittle is Welsh, a decision and an accent with which the actor is clearly uncomfortable. He has none of Rex Harrison’s arch confidence nor the cocky likeability of his Iron Man character, and meek and mumbling doesn’t suit him.

The underlying message – that we could all use a little empathy, the ability to slow down and listen to the language of others – is there, faintly. But mostly the film reminded me of the stories I used to make up to put my children to sleep at night, which meandered and veered off track before coming to a hasty conclusion. 

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