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Dolittle **1/2

The story is predictable, but it’s just cute and funny enough to show kids a good time.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Cute animals. Glossy visual effects. Kids helping Iron Man save the day. “Dolittle” is so infused with saccharine furry fun that it almost gets the 2020 movie year off to a rollicking and joyful start. Almost.

To its credit, though, it does have appealing elements, and is successful enough at what it does to make it worthy of a moderate recommendation.

Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) is a recluse. His wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) died while exploring the high seas, so even though he’s the only person in the world who can talk to animals, and is the best veterinarian there is, he’s too depressed to help others. (A bit selfish, no?) Director and co-writer Stephen Gaghan doesn’t point out how many animals died while Dolittle battled depression, so best not to think about it and move on.

Dolittle, now with a beard that would make ZZ Top proud, receives unwanted visitors in the form of a teenage boy named Stubbins (Harry Collett), who accidentally shot a squirrel (voice of Craig Robinson), and teenager Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who is there at the request of the queen of England. The queen is dying, and requests Dolittle’s help. Why the human queen would want a veterinarian’s help is not made clear, but it’s essential for the plot, so once again we don’t ask questions and move on.

To save the queen Dolittle must venture where Lily failed, find a secret fruit, and overcome the various obstacles he and his animal friends encounter. The animals are not necessarily what you expect: Chee-Chee the gorilla (voice of Rami Malek) is scared of everything, Yoshi the polar bear (voice of John Cena) is always cold and needs a hat, and Plimpton the ostrich (voice of Kumail Nanjiani) hates…movement. Dab-Dab the duck (voice of Olivia Spencer), Jip the dog (voice of Tom Holland), and Polynesia the parrot (voice of Emma Thompson) are more resourceful.

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Most of this is predictable, but the journey is what counts, and along the way Dolittle’s adventures are amusing enough to keep us interested. It’s clever how they escape a war ship with the help of whales, there’s a cheeky “Godfather”-esque sequence with a dragonfly (voice of Jason Mantzoukas), and the always great Antonio Banderas pops in as a baddie looking for revenge on Dolittle. This leads to Dolittle being fed to a tiger (voice of Ralph Fiennes); we’ve seen a lot of things in movies, and now we can add a guy talking a tiger out of eating him to the list.  

The visual effects are impressive throughout, as a colorful, glossy sheen presents the film in as clear and vivid a way as possible. It is accessible for parents and children alike, while the PG-rating confirms there’s nothing offensive or worrisome here. This is a safe family film that is both competent and completely uninterested in risks, twists, or surprises. That might be okay for the kids who don’t know better, but for the older kids (i.e. suffering parents), it’s tiresome.

Did you know?
The original “Doctor Dolittle” (1967) starred Rex Harrison in the title role and was nominated for nine(!) Oscars, including best picture. It won for special effects and original song (“Talk to the Animals”).