‘Doctor Dolittle’ Returns – Again

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Susan JAMES

It’s been 22 years since the guy who talks with animals graced our screens. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan and the Downeys, Robert and Susan, have decided the time is right for another revisit. Each time around we get a new take. In 1967, Rex Harrison did his Henry Higgins shtick with song and dance and in 1998 Eddie Murphy translated the story into an urban fable. Now we have Robert Downey Jr.’s version. 

Eccentric just about covers it. For reasons never explained, Downey has chosen to give the good doctor a thick Welsh (?) accent that comes and goes like the animal herds beyond his front door. Sometimes subtitles should apply.

In the children’s books by Hugh Lofting, Dolittle is an animal-loving Englishman who lives in a tiny West Country village. For Downey, he’s a heavily bearded Welshman who lives in an overgrown stately manor and spends his days grunting, growling and chirping to various members of the animal kingdom. In his clamorous cloister the irascible Dolittle is nursing a broken heart. His wife, explorer Lily bint Rassouli, has been lost at sea while on a mysterious expedition and Dolittle has chosen to brood over his loss rather than follow that famous Welsh fashion of stiffening his upper lip and just getting on with it.

Enter peasant boy Tommy Stubbins, winsomely played by Harry Collett. Stubbins has a fondness for animals that makes it hard to please his father, an avid hunter. When Stubbins accidentally shoots and wounds a squirrel in the forest, he’s surprised by the arrival of a talking parrot named – you guessed it – Poly, who chats him up and then guides him to the overgrown realm of the dear old doctor. Into the middle of the ensuing squirrel surgery yet another winsome child, Lady Rose, arrives to announce that Queen Victoria is dying from an unknown cause and in urgent need of the doctor’s skills.

What follows is a visit to Buckingham Palace, a quest, a villain or two and the search for a healing potion from the fruit of a magical tree that only grows in a magical land guarded by a dragon across a roiling sea. On a voyage in pursuit of the magical tree, Dolittle and his new apprentice Stubbins stop off at the kingdom of Lily’s father, King Rassouli, who blames the doctor for the death of his daughter. The all too few scenes between Downey’s Dolittle and Rassouli, played by Antonio Banderas, are almost worth the price of admission.  This is what two really good actors can do to turn light material into arresting drama. But all too soon we are whisked away from Rassouliland and back on the boat in quest of that pesky tree.

Downey’s Dolittle is a fanciful fairy tale full of talking animals voiced by an entire catalog of A list actors. Deeply strange for a Marvel Universe aficionado is the fact that Spiderman Tom Holland voices Iron Man’s, sorry, Dolittle’s dog. Notable, too, is Craig Robinson’s wounded squirrel keeping track of that would-be squirrel killer Stubbins and recording in a “Star Trek”-style log each dramatic turn of events.

It’s probably not the best film you’ll see this year, but it is fun, it’s short and you wouldn’t want to miss out on that Welsh (?) accent, soon to trend on #twitter. 

See you at the movies!