Dolittle review: Robert Downey Jr.’s good doctor goes to the dogs

This misfiring new adaptation of the beloved literary character gets swamped by a menagerie of CGI and crude humour that will not have parents laughing along with their kids.

Robert Downey Jr. as Doctor Dolittle

Robert Downey Jr. as Doctor Dolittle

“I bought a front-row seat to crazy town,” says CGI squirrel Kevin during a scene in Dolittle, and his words might resonate with audiences in more ways than intended. This foray into family territory from Syriana’s Stephen Gaghan has none of the charm of the 1967 musical with Rex Harrison, and many perplexing choices. One of these is star Robert Downey Jr.’s insistence on a Welsh accent; another is a plot that fails to balance palace conspiracies with animal antics and the grieving Dolittle’s healing process.

There’s brief intrigue in Dolittle’s ability to understand sick animals, but this talent is reduced to a plot device as he seeks information from creatures on a mission. These range from an octopus in Queen Victoria’s chambers to a dragon guarding an antidote to the poison the monarch has ingested.

Unusually for a Downey Jr character, Dolittle is not amusing enough to compensate for his sense of self-importance, and he undertakes the voyage only for fear of eviction from his mansion after the queen’s death. The queen is a distant figure lying in bed; Dolittle’s young apprentice, Stubbins, is a thinly drawn everyboy, while the freakishly pretty Lady Rose is merely Stubbins’s clearly signalled love interest.

CG work is strong, though only one or two of the voice actors are well cast: Ralph Fiennes’s bitter alpha-tiger is rippling with imperious resentment, but Rami Malek’s insecure gorilla fails to amuse. Like many an ailing comedy, Dolittle ends up falling back on fart jokes to make the kids laugh. But they will probably be laughing alone.


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