Despite some negative murmurings from people who had yet to see the movie, this version of the good doctor who can talk with the animals is a delight. Robert Downey Jr’s “Dolittle” has better pacing than the 1967 version and, while not a musical, has the advantage of a better storyline and good villains along with CGI sequences that would not have been possible in the Rex Harrison version. While Eddie Murphy attempted to modernize in 1998, taking the doctor to contemporary times, “Dolittle” sets this at the beginning of the Victorian era.
A short animated introduction tells us how the doctor began to talk to the animals, found the love of his life and settled down to a grand estate in Great Britain, courtesy of a grateful queen. The animation gives way to live action as his beloved wife, Lily Dolittle (Kasia Smutniak), an explorer, sets sail, promising to return soon. She leaves with the macaw Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), but when a storm hits, Lily sends Polynesia away with her ring.
Her death/disappearance at sea leaves the doctor bereft. Seven years later, Dolittle Manor has few visitors and is covered with ivy. Inside the doctor passes the time playing chess with the gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek). This is a delightfully whimsical sequence where the chess pieces are mice dressed up for the acts of war.
The outside world soon comes calling. Tommy Stubbins has been hunting with his father Arnall Stubins (Ralph Ineson), but while his brother (Sonny Ashbourne Serkis) flushes the ducks, Tommy purposely misses the ducks. His father admonishes him, “You can’t keep missing on purpose.” Unfortunately, Tommy accidentally hits a squirrel, Kevin (Craig Robinson). Heartbroken, Tommy takes the squirrel to Dolittle Manor and with the help of Polynesia and a young girl of aristocratic airs, gains entrance. Dolittle, with the help of his animal friends successfully operate on the squirrel.
Downey portrays Dolittle as a man with a hoarse voice, perhaps grown dry and throaty from taking on sounds that the human vocal box wasn’t originally intended to make. You won’t hear the smooth glide of the rich Tony Stark and this Dolittle is without snark. He appears to be a bit afraid of the outside world and his appearance is one of a man whose one splendid garments have gone to ruin and who hasn’t brushed his hair or groomed his facial hair for seven years. He’s in danger of becoming a “filthy animal hoarder.”
Dolittle refuses to pleas of the girl, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado). Where Tommy is shy and uncertain, Lady Rose is self-assured and polished. She serves the young queen and the queen is deathly ill. She has summoned the doctor because Dolittle treated human patients before he found a preference for animals.
Polynesia reminds the doctor that he and all his friends live on the estate because of the queen and without her and her good graces, they will be out on the street. Or, in the case of anxiety-prone Chee-Chee, or cold-hating Yoshi the polar bear (John Cena), the head in the sand or hat Plimpton the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), the ditzy surgery assistant Dab-Dab the duck (Octavia Spencer) and glass-wearing Jip the dog (Tom Holland), a zoo or circus. Worst case scenario for the birds is destination dining table on some estate where roast duck and roast ostrich might be a double feature.
After getting groomed to make himself more presentable (and finding some lost friends), Dolittle gets on his best out-dated wear-worn attire and is ready to ride. Dolittle refuses to ride in the carriage the queen has sent–that’s something for Yoshi and other members of his menagerie. He rides Plimpton who is not totally willing and isn’t used to being inside a palace, causing a bit of a commotion that involves displays of armor.
Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) is attended by Dr. Blair Müdfly who had been a classmate of Dolittle and is treating Victoria with leeches. Don’t worry. We don’t spend much time with the leeches. Dolittle consults, not with the leeches, but with an octopus who has a good view of the room from its aquarium, and with Jip to figure out what ails the queen. The antidote requires Dolittle to journey to a mysterious island and get the fruit from the Eden tree. Dolittle literally “bugs” the room and leaves the queen under the watchful eyes of the spectacled Jim. We learn that Müdfly is plotting with Lord Thomas Badgley to kill the queen and rule England. Under his treatment, Müdfly says, “She’ll be lucky to last the week.”
Badgley is concerned that Dolittle will return with the cure so Müdfly pursues Dolittle’s ship, named the “Water Lily,” and fires upon it, but Dolittle has friends–calling a whale to help pull his ship. Müdfly recalls that Dolittle wrote an essay about such things.
While neither Dolittle nor Müdfly know where the tree is, Dolittle believes that notes left by his late wife, will lead him there. But that means he must visit an island (Monteverde?) where he is unwelcome. The snarling ruler of this colorful, sun-drenched, Rassouli (Antonio Banderas with a ferociously musical voice and smokey eyes) hates Dolittle. Dolittle has some friends who help him, but it isn’t enough. He ends up facing an angry gold-toothed tiger, Barry the Butcher (Ralph Fiennes), who isn’t easily won over by the doctor. While Rassouli believes that Barry is dining on the doctor, he’s welcoming Tommy into his hoard of men and beasts.
Of course, the doctor will escape and Tommy, who has a crush on Lady Rose, will meet her again. History tells us that Victoria will go on to have a long reign, so we know Müdfly and his cohorts will be foiled. A happy ending will be had for everyone except maybe Müdfly and Badgley.
At one hour and 42 minutes, this movie is the right length for kids and the children who attended the press screening seemed attentive enough–no screaming or noisy squirming boredom. Stay long enough to see the mid-credits scene while reveals Müdfly’s fate.
The negative rumors were not unfounded. The movie underwent 21 days of reshooting scenes. Under director Stephen Gaghan, some of the scenes (screenplay by Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand with additional new material by Chris McKay) didn’t play well with test audiences.
Overall, this Dolittle is a tragic figure, who finds foster fatherhood with his new apprentice, and, by helping the queen, helps himself, returning to society and to giving the world what it needs, a man who can talk to their beloved animals. The morals of this tale are: Courage is not the absence of fear and it’s only through helping others that we can truly help ourselves. And for all those kids destined to love animals better than humans, it gives them a chance to dream of a world where they can talk to the animals.