Talking animal movies — like animated films — have become huge star vehicles these days, and why not? They provide a relatively quick and easy paycheck for celebs who need not worry about getting into shape for a role, nor sitting in makeup for hours or tiresome wardrobe fittings. All they have to do is read their parts in some sound booth to get the big billing and the money that goes with it. (It’s no wonder Prince Harry has been lobbying movie Disney execs to give his wifey voice work).
There’s a lot of big name voices in Dolittle, the whimsical new adventure starring Robert Downey Jr. as the famed doc who talks to animals, but unfortunately they are as wasted as one might expect. And while this is no Cats-style disaster, it’s no Lion King either. It’s just another cute family film with great actors phoning it in; Oscar winners no less, including Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer and Emma Thompson, playing a gorilla, a duck and a parrot respectively.
Moving past his Iron Man persona to try on a weird Welsh accent, Downey’s Dolittle is a sort of bumbling genius type, nothing like Eddie Murphy’s take on the character. This re-imagining is based on Hugh Lofting’s book The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (versus the other well-known tale, The Story of Doctor Dolittle), and that means there’s a good share of seafaring hijinks a la Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s shot quite beautifully and the score by Danny Elfman adds a majestic quality, but it’s not enough to save what is basically a flimsy story embellished by CGI with mostly dumb dialog geared toward children — and not very sophisticated ones.
After losing his explorer wife seven years earlier, the eccentric Dolittle has become a hermit living with his only friends: a bunch of exotic animals. When the Queen of England falls ill due to poisoning, the doc sets sail to a mythical island in search of a cure with his creatures and a young would-be apprentice (Dunkirk’s Harry Collett). Along the way, he battles villains and former foes (Antonio Banderas as his deceased wife’s father is the best thing in this movie, by the way).
Despite the actor pedigrees, the animals are the least interesting thing about this fantastical tale and Downey’s mumbly accent is downright annoying by the end. We all wish we could talk to animals, and had this movie tapped into the mystery in that, we might have bought in (Murphy’s modern take on the idea actually accomplished this better). For a period film that conjures all the right visuals, this one lacks the imagination and depth needed to make it special. Unlike Toy Story, Lion King or even the Harry Potter films, this is not a flick childless adults will want or need to see. For moviegoers with kids it’s not the worst way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but neither is the zoo, and the latter might be better time spent.