I’m a sucker for any film where there are talking babies and animals. For some reason, it really puts a smile on my face and in my heart. As an avid fan of Dr. Doolittle and Robert Downey, Jr., I had hoped it would be as enjoyable as predecessors of this beloved franchise like the original with Rex Harrison and the Eddie Murphy versions. Unfortunately, it fell a little short. Putting aside this is yet another retelling, Doolittle, shot two years ago, was shown to test audiences who were not thrilled, leading to reshoots the year after (with the help of a second director). All of this resulted in two release dates missed, leaving us with a January bow typically associated with movies that tend to not fare well due to the focus of the impeding Oscars.
What made the previous versions engaging and charming was the fact that Doolittle didn’t attempt to talk to the animals in their native tongue (which comes off cheesy at best) and his connection seems to be simple, honest and heart-warming. This version goes back to the source and places us in Victorian England, with John Dolittle (Robert Downey,Jr.) mourning the death of his wife, closing himself off with only animals as company. His distrust and total avoidance of other humans limits his social life until two children find their way on to his property forcing him to re-examine his ways and reacclimatize back into society to assist a dying monarch.
Of course, when you think of an eccentric doctor who connects with animals, one would think no one would be better for this role than Robert Downey, Jr. Let’s be clear, Downey is not the reason this film doesn’t work. He’s excellent and encompasses everything we love about him including a little hat trick action reminding you of his Oscar nominated turn as Charlie Chaplin.
What Doolittle excels at is putting a spotlight on how cruel and dismissive others can be of those who are perceived as different. Just because you are different doesn’t mean you are not specially gifted in ways others may not understand or know how to embrace. It also shows how grief can paralyze and isolate one from life eating them up from the inside out. Also, one of my favorite moments is the squirrel who gives a blow by blow description aka Star Trek log style voiced by non other than Craig Robinson. Michael Sheen (Dr. Blair Mudfly) and Antonio Banderas (King Rassouli) are entertaining in their respective roles, but even they and Downey can’t save this film from fading into cinema oblivion. T
Kids will love the talking animals, especially Polly (Emma Thompson), Barry (Ralph Fiennes) and Chee Chee (Rami Malek) and the child-like quality of eternally youthful Robert Downey, Jr. when Universal Pictures brings Doolittle at cha’ on January 17th.