Hugh Lofting’s stories about a man who can talk to the animals have been made into movies before – most notably the 1967 musical with Rex Harrison and the 1998 comedy with Eddie Murphy – but this 2020 movie is the first version to feature a dragon having a set of bagpipes removed from her posterior. And that’s not a recommendation.
In this adaptation, Dolittle (Downey Jr) is a bearded recluse following the loss of his wife, who died on a seafaring adventure to find a mythical island. The only conversations he has are with the animals that live with him – who he can talk to and understand – including a parrot named Poly (Emma Thompson), a spectacle-wearing dog named Jip (Tom Holland) and Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), a nervous gorilla.
His first human contact in ages comes when young Tommy (Harry Collett) asks for Dolittle’s help in saving an injured squirrel and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) turns up on the very same day to ask Dolittle to visit Queen Victoria, who is gravely ill. So Dolittle, his new friends and his animals head off to Buckingham Palace to learn that the Queen has been poisoned and only a rare fruit from a land far away can save her. And of course, it’s the same place where Dolittle’s wife perished, so they are going to have to undertake a dangerous journey to save HRH.
Unfortunately, while lots of money seems to have been spent on the CGI animals and their voice cast, that also includes John Cena, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes (as a mother-fixated tiger), Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard, very little seems to have been spent on important things like the script.
Jokes are few and far between and so dumb they will make a five year old wince, while there are some odd plot choices for a movie aimed at young families – how many little kids want to watch a movie that begins with a man suffering deep depression over the death of his wife? And what about the aforementioned tiger with mummy issues? Hmmm.
Director Stephen Gaghan, who is better known for grown-up, gritty fare like Traffic, is clearly out of his depth making a family film as potentially interesting adventure sequences are cut before they can get going and terrific supporting cast members like Jessie Buckley (as Victoria) and Antonio Banderas (as pirate King Rassouli) are wasted in minor blink-and-you’ll-miss them roles.
Worst of all, Downey Jr – who has displayed great comic chops in movies like Sherlock Holmes and Tropic Thunder – isn’t given the chance to do much of anything. There are rare moments when you catch a glimpse of the sparkling screen presence that made his Iron Man such a beloved character, but chances are you and your kids will have already nodded off by the time they arrive and you’ll miss them.
Is Dolittle suitable for kids? Here are our parents’ notes...
This movie isn’t really sure who it is aimed at, but we think it is supposed to be for children of all ages. That said, it does feature a dragon towards the end that, when we first meet it, is quite scary (also its lair is dark and creepy) – if your child would find the dragon from The Hobbit movies frightening, they will find this one upsetting, too, even though it turns out to be friendly.
There are themes in this movie that are quite grown up – Dolittle is mourning his dead wife, there is a tiger with psychological issues – but it is more likely these moments will bore children rather than disturb them.
The movie’s main baddie (Michael Sheen) is more silly than scary, and the other slightly ‘bad’ character – Banderas’s pirate – should only frighten very young or sensitive children.
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