- Jo Berry
- 3 February 2020
Robert Downey Jr can't salvage a costly remake distinctly lacking in animal magic
Hugh Lofting's classic children's stories about a doctor who can talk to animals have been adapted for the big screen over the years with seriously mixed results – from the slow 1967 Rex Harrison musical, to the forgettable 1998 update (complete with raunchy gags) that featured Eddie Murphy in the title role.
So, it's almost impressive that this latest version succeeds in being the worst of them all (even a straight-to-DVD animation voiced by Jane Seymour and Tim Curry is better). Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan – whose CV of heavy dramas like Syriana and Traffic doesn't exactly make him the most obvious choice to helm a cute animal movie – the film stars Robert Downey Jr as the doctor. But this Dolittle isn't the happy chap of previous adaptations – he's a virtual hermit (complete with shaggy beard, wild hair and tattered clothes) following the death at sea of his beloved wife Lily.
Yes, a grieving widower with mental health problems is just what kids are looking for when they settle down in their cinema seat with their popcorn and, if that doesn't confuse them, a tiger named Barry with mummy issues (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) who pops up later most certainly will.
The plot – a series of brief, barely connected scenes – has a young boy named Tommy (Harry Collett) coming to Dolittle for help to save a squirrel at the same time that Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) arrives with an order from none other than Queen Victoria (a woefully underused Jessie Buckley). It seems the Queen is dying, and Dolittle is persuaded to go to Buckingham Palace to help her, along with his menagerie of animals, which includes Chee-Chee the nervous gorilla (Rami Malek), Polynesia the parrot (Emma Thompson), Jip the dog (Tom Holland) and Plimpton the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani).
Apparently, Victoria has been poisoned and the only cure is some fruit from an undiscovered land far, far away. Luckily, Dolittle's late wife knew where this land was, so the doc, Tommy and the animals head off to sea – with Dolittle's old school rival Dr Müdfly (Michael Sheen) in hot pursuit. The more interesting characters – Victoria and Rose – are left behind to wait for the menfolk to return.
As the group embark on their journey, action sequences are hinted at but never fully realised – one assumes the reported $175 million budget was spent on the star names behind the animals, leaving little for stunts or adventure effects. Or, in fact, a decent script.
The gang's arrival at the enjoyably sinister pirate king Rassouli's fort is half as fun and exciting as it could have been – especially with the wonderful Antonio Banderas hamming it up as Rassouli – and many other moments are wasted or rushed in favour of dumb gags (such as the removal of a set of bagpipes from a dragon's arse). Downey Jr, a terrific comic actor given the chance, is – wobbly Welsh accent aside – an amiable protagonist, but he's bobbing at the centre of a big furry disappointment.
General release from Fri 7 Feb.