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"DOLITTLE"
(2020) (Robert Downey, Jr., Harry Collett) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Adventure: To save the life of the queen and the manor she bequeathed him, a reclusive, widowed man who can talk to animals sets out with them to find a cure for her.
PLOT:
Dr. John Dolittle (ROBERT DOWNEY JR.) was once a well-known and often seen celebrity who became famous for his ability to converse with animals. But following the death of his wife years ago, he's since become a recluse with only animals as his companions. That includes the wise macaw Poly (voice of EMMA THOMPSON); easily scared gorilla Chee-Chee (voice of RAMI MALEK); polar bear Yoshi (voice of JOHN CENA) who often clashes with Plimpton (voice of KUMAIL NANJIANI) the ostrich; Dab-Dab (voice of OCTAVIA SPENCER), an enthusiastic if scattered-brained duck; and Jip (voice of TOM HOLLAND) who can smell illnesses on others.

Doolittle's animal-only solitude ends up interrupted by two outsiders. One is a boy, Tommy Stubbins (HARRY COLLETT), who's accidentally shot a squirrel, Kevin (voice of CRAIG ROBINSON), while trying to avoid hitting anything while being forced to hunt with his uncle and cousin. The other is young Lady Rose (CARMEL LANIADO) who's arrived from the palace with news that Queen Victoria (JESSIE BUCKLEY) is gravely ill and has requested Dolittle to care for her. He initially declines the request but changes his mind when he learns that should the queen die, the land she bequeathed to him and the manor in which he lives with the animals will return to the government treasury.

Accordingly, he visits the queen, much to the dismay of Lord Thomas Badgley (JIM BROADBENT) and the resident physician, Dr. Blair Mudfly (MICHAEL SHEEN), the latter who went to medical school with Dolittle and despises having lived in his shadow for so long. Dolittle determines the queen needs an antidote that can only be found in the fruit of the Eden tree. The only problem is no one knows where to find one, although Dolittle remembers that his wife, Lily, wrote about that before her death. To complicate matters, her manual is in the hands of pirate king Rassouli (ANTONIO BANDERAS) who has a long-standing grudge against Dolittle, something he'd be more than happy to resolve through the use of his deadly tiger, Barry (voice of RALPH FIENNES).

Facing all of that as well as a fearsome, fire-breathing dragon (voice of FRANCES DE LA TOUR), Dolittle does what he can to get his hands on the antidote and return to the queen before it's too late.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
I love all of the diversity in the animal kingdom. If an alien on another planet was tasked with creating a menagerie of animal life on Earth, they probably would be hard-pressed to come up with such diverse species with such unique characteristics. And some of those are so perfectly designed that they've barely changed over the course of thousands or even millions of years.

But then there's the platypus and you just have to look at it and wonder where it all went wrong. Seemingly a Frankenstein creature with features similar to ducks, beavers and otters, the females of this mammal species lay eggs while their male counterparts have toxic stingers on their rear feet. They're so strange that word is scientists who first examined them believed the critters to be some sort of hoax.

Movies geared for kids also show up in all sorts of varieties, with the perfect (or at least near perfect) ones standing the test of time regardless of changing sensibilities and entertainment choices. But there are also oddities among such offerings and if one would epitomize the cinematic equivalent of a platypus, it would be -- appropriately enough, I guess -- "Dolittle."

Based on Hugh Lofting's "Dr. Dolittle" children's books from a century ago and now being the third big-screen adaptation of that -- following the 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy's 1998 remake (and 2001 sequel) -- the flick -- directed by Stephen Gaghan from a script he co-wrote with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand -- feels like a hodgepodge of elements from other kid-oriented movies, cobbled together into a decidedly odd Franken-platypus-stein like offering.

For starters -- and yes, I understand the film is aimed mostly at younger kids so I'll cut it some slack -- we have the title character played this time around by Robert Downey Jr. Seemingly channeling Johnny Depp's penchant for embodying flamboyantly idiosyncratic characters, the charismatic actor feels off his game here. Some of that stems from the decision to imbue the character with what sounds like a decidedly less than convincing Welsh accent.

But there's also the fact that -- following the protagonist's wife's accidental death at sea (which we learn in an animated prologue) -- Downey plays Dolittle like an eccentric hermit. One would assume that's supposed to stem from only having animal contact over the years, but since all of the critters who reside in his manor speak in a fluent and, for the most part, intelligent fashion (translated into English for viewers), it seems like an odd direction in which to have the character begin his journey.

And that starts with two unexpected human interactions that occur on the same day. One involves a boy (Harry Collett) who's accidentally shot a squirrel and arrives at Dolittle's manor in hope the doc can save the little guy (who's later voiced by Craig Robinson with some modern-day spunky attitude). The other has a royal girl (Carmen Laniado) from the nearby palace summoning Dolittle to do his animal healing bit on the decidedly human but gravely ill queen (Jessie Buckley). With the land she earlier bequeathed him now on the line, he reluctantly agrees to help.

The story eventually around to learning that the queen has been poisoned, much to the poorly faked shock of Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent) and his loyal physician assistant (Michael Sheen hamming it up so much he has to be selling villainous handlebar mustaches on the side). Anyway, Dolittle then sets sail for a far-away and maybe not even real land to search for the antidote with his small menagerie of animal friends in tow, including a macaw (voiced by Emma Thompson), gorilla (Rami Malek), ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), polar bear (Jon Cena) and duck (Octavia Spencer).

That eventually leads to a run-in with a revenge-minded pirate (Antonio Banderas), a tiger (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) who likewise has a vendetta against Dolittle, and a fire-breathing dragon (Frances de la Tour) inexplicably added to the mix. And, natch, there's some related crude, scatological humor thrown in to appease such comedy sensibilities of younger kids.

Add in a frenetic and antic pace and aura and the overall offering ends up feeling like a hodgepodge of things you've seen in various other films. Again, kids might not mind and there is a smattering of fun, funny and nice touches to be found during the 100-some minute runtime.

Even so, and while the platypus has somehow managed to survive and thrive with its eclectic and seemingly clashing elements, "Dolittle" ends up so incongruous that you'll likely have doubts it will manage to spawn off a sequel and seems destined for cinematic extinction. The film rates as a 3.5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 11, 2020 / Posted January 17, 2020


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