The time is right for Doctor Dolittle. Finally.
After the cluttered, clunky and agonizingly overlong 1967 Rex Harrison version, which used live animals to bring author Hugh Lofting’s iconic doc to the big screen, and the supremely silly but mercifully much shorter Eddie Murphy iteration from 1998 (he also starred in a sequel in 2001), also with live animals, comes writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s take on the character.
The computerized technology used to create photorealistic critters in such recent pictures as “The Jungle Book” and last summer’s “The Lion King” is so perfectly suited to the Dolittle story, it’s surprising it’s taken this long for Hollywood to get around to giving the granddaddy of talking-animal tales the full CGI treatment.
And now here “Dolittle” is, without an actual animal used, and it’s by far the best of the lot.
A great deal of credit for that goes to Robert Downey Jr. In his first movie since “Avengers: Endgame,” he not only plays the title role but also, along with his producer-wife Susan Downey, had significant input into the shaping of the picture. In collaboration with director Gaghan, who shares screenplay credit with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, the Downeys gave the doctor a backstory to explain why at the start he’s withdrawn from the world and lives behind the locked gates of his estate with only animals for companions.
He’s in longtime mourning for his wife, an adventurer killed in a shipwreck. His sense of loss has turned him into a recluse. And later it involves him in a fraught relationship with his wife’s father, a pirate king played by a bearded Antonio Banderas. Fraught, that is, in the sense that the pirate blames the doctor for his daughter’s death and vengefully flings him into a dungeon with an ill-tempered tiger voiced with deep-throated irascibility by Ralph Fiennes.
Thus does the picture invest the character with significant emotional substance.
Intent on rousing the doc from his funk is a village lad named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett). A kid from a family of hunters who’s an animal lover at heart, he accidentally shoots a squirrel, and in distress brings the creature to the doctor to be healed. His eager-beaver demeanor is reminiscent of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, and the relationship he forms with Dolittle, of worshipful student to reluctant mentor, is reminiscent of the Tony Stark/Peter Parker dynamic. As it happens, Holland has a role in this movie, voicing a dog who is the doctor’s loyal though chatty companion.
In fact, all the animals in “Dolittle” are loquacious, and the voice cast is like a who’s who of famous players. In addition to Holland and Fiennes, it includes Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard and very many more.
Best of all is Thompson, who voices Dolittle’s right-hand parrot Polynesia “Poly,” a no-nonsense bird whose life’s goal is to persuade Dolittle to stop feeling sorry for himself.
With the exception of Poly, these creatures have all got personality issues of various kinds. The tiger, for example, is pathologically in need of his mommy’s approval. The gorilla is a scaredy-cat and the polar bear hates the cold. Dolittle’s special gift is being a healer of bodies and soother of troubled spirits.
Downey plays the role with a sardonic edge that is pure Tony Stark, but also with believable empathy for the members of Dolittle’s menagerie. The humor veers from the broad — in early scenes, Dolittle, in a vast fake beard that’s home to a mouse, cowers behind furniture — to the inventively clever, as when he gruffs and growls, quacks and chitters while talking the animals’ native lingo.
He brings gravity along with those gruffs and growls. Combine that with a sense of fun that animates all the performances and the result is a movie that will appeal to kids and adults. For a fun time to dispel the gloom of January, “Dolittle” is just what the doctor ordered.
★★★ “Dolittle,” with Robert Downey Jr., Harry Collett, Carmel Laniado, Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, and the voices of Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, John Cena, Ralph Fiennes, Rami Malek. Directed by Stephen Gaghan, from a screenplay by Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand. 106 minutes. Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language. Opens Jan. 17 at multiple theaters.