DOLITTLE Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s off travelling with the doctor.

The trick to enjoying Dolittle, the third cinematic re-invention of the tales of Hugh Lofting’s animal linguist and physician, is essentially to go back to basics. The stories were originally written for children (while Lofting was serving in the trenches of World War I, no less), and the thing you need to do in order to enjoy Robert Downey Jr’s take on the doctor is to imagine you’re a child. Imagine you have the imagination not to notice the oddities that shine through to adults and reviewers – the Tom Jones-ish Welsh accent Downey Jr affects for the role, or the fact that sometimes, it looks like he, as well as the animals, was overdubbed after filming. When you see a handful of set pieces tacked unconvincingly together, let your imagination fill in the gaps with the scale of an epic journey around the world in the silver age of explorers and the golden age of naturalists, with Dolittle and his crew of animals (and one entirely disengaging young boy) racing to a never-discovered island to find a fruit of the gods, so as to cure a young Queen Victoria from imminent death-by-poisoning. Needless to say, there’s chicanery afoot, but when it comes to Dolittle’s long-time rival, Blair Müdfly (No…really, that’s his name), played by Michael Sheen, imagine someone gave even a first thought to characterisation of the villain, rather than leaving him a kind of snarling, gurning mash-up of Tony Blair and Rik Mayall’s career. Imagine that you’re still able to laugh a child-like laugh when vegetables are repeatedly mistaken for surgical instruments, or when a dragon gets a leek unceremoniously up the butt.

Essentially, overall, imagine the whole thing was the movie someone, anyone actually intended to make, and go with its undemanding flow like you’re seven, and it’s a wet Sunday afternoon, and your games console’s been mysteriously hidden. Then, you can get a great time out of Dolittle.

To be fair to adults watching, there’s some good stuff left after a complex multi-version production process, four writers (five if you include Chris McKay who contributed the screen story), and some innovative additions from the star.

Firstly, let’s not forget that Robert Downey Jr’s at the heart of this movie. You cast Robert Downey Jr as a quirky, brilliant character, somewhat at odds with society but having skills that society needs, and whatever the actual movie ends up looking like, there’s something that holds your interest throughout – see also, his Sherlock Holmes movies. Overall, fairly dubious, but watchable because Downey Jr fills the screen with presence.

Secondly, Doctor Dolittle has rarely if ever looked as good and as stylistically right for the time of its original setting. While Rex Harrison’s allegedly-musical version was also set in the 1830s, as per the books, it rarely needs to be, whereas here the story is front and centre with its Victorian themes - the queen herself (played by a mostly-dying Jessie Buckley) is the inspiration that drags Dolittle out of self-imposed isolation and forces him to travel the world, and the sense of the race between naturalists and physicians to find the next incredible thing in the world gives the movie that old Sunday afternoon, settled on the couch feeling of some of Disney’s most enjoyable B-movies. Downey Jr’s bizarre Welsh warlockery (allegedly based on Dr William Price – a man whose life is worth a movie in its own right) lends the film a kind of Doctor Who vibe: he exists at such right-angles to the human world that it’s only when it threatens to impinge on him with the death of the queen that he deigns to notice it exists, and almost immediately when he does so, he uses the danger in which the queen finds herself as a thinly-veiled excuse to go on a world-roaming adventure to find the Eden fruit that his late wife Lily was seeking when she was killed stone dead on the ocean. Yes, yes, yes, the fruit will cure the queen – in fact, to hear it talked of, it should more or less make her an immortal superhero (and who doesn’t love a handy bio-MacGuffin?), but really, the degree of glee with which Downey Jr’s Dolittle jogs off round the world feels like he’s using the crisis for adventure and some personal closure. If that seems like it should make him an anti-hero, it’s arguable you might need a lesson in Kid Psychology.

Thirdly of course, there is a lot of hot voice-acting talent in this movie. Hell, there’s a lot of hot acting talent in this movie, but it speaks to the fundamental kid-entrancing nature of the material that quite so much of it was keen to take on even the oddest of roles. While Antonia Banderas appears in a live-action role as Dolittle’s piratical father-in-law, presumably deliberately giving off waves of Pirates Of The Caribbean chic with his trademark Puzzz in Boots purr, checking out the cast sheet gives you the measure of the casting director on this movie. Emma Thompson probably does the bulk of the heavy lifting as Polynesia, the macaw who gives us a narratorial entry-point to the story, but there’s Rami Malek, fresh from Oscar triumph in Bohemian Rhapsody and en route to his shot at Bond villainy, starring as Chee-Chee, the anxious gorilla. There’s John Cena as polar bear Yoshi. There’s the latest Spidey on the block, Tom Holland, giving us his Inner Dog as Jip, Dolittle’s faithful guardian. There’s Octavia Spencer, giving a spirited, no-nonsense performance as Dab-Dab the duck – which I guarantee you is a sentence no reviewer ever thought they’d be called upon to write.

Some of the best scenes in the movie are given to Craig Robinson as Kevin, the squirrel who gets shot early on and navigates much of the rest of the movie giving Star Trek style ‘Captain’s log’ entries about his ongoing imprisonment in the mad menagerie of the druidic doctor.

The list of talents goes on and on – Jim Broadbent’s in this movie as the arch-fiend behind Müdfly’s self-revolving chicanery. Ralph Fiennes is here too, playing a tiger with mother issues. Selena Gomez pops in to give of her giraffe. Marion Cotillard gets foxy, most particularly in a chase scene along with Gomez, the two revealing their characters have a complex, shared and criminal past. Frances de la goddamned Tour is in this movie – which coupled with the pull of Downey Jr should be enough to make you want to watch it at least once, because you’ve never seen a dragon get a colonoscopy until you’ve seen a dragon played by Frances de la Tour get a colonoscopy! That’s a certainty you can take to the bank. Even in smaller live action roles, the film reeks of quality – Ralph ‘Oh that guy, from the other things’ Ineson and Joanna ‘Stacey from Gavin and Stacey’ Page have tiny roles, but make their respective marks.

The point is that if you cram all this high-class talent into a movie, some of that quality, that timing, that invention is going to rub off on the overall film. And it does. Dolittle may have taken an initial pasting in the press, and there are some solid reasons for that – the film feels like it’s missing sections that would logically pull it together for a grown-up audience, the voice-dubbing feels dubious, Michael Sheen’s villainous role, for all the wonder that is Michael Sheen himself, feels distinctly underwritten, contributing to a lightweight sense of ‘So what?’ about his villainy, you genuinely don’t care if Dolittle’s self-described apprentice, Tommy Stubbins lives or dies, though if you had a choice, you’re left unsure whether he’d make it out of the first reel, and the death of Lily Dolittle, while a major driving force in the film’s action, is occasionally oddly used, to give Dolittle an escape when he shouldn’t be able to count on one, and ultimately near the end of the film, in a somewhat throwaway moment, to force a connection between Dolittle and the dragon – but ultimately, all these are things that will cause frowns from grown-ups, but will never worry a younger audience to any great degree. They’ll fill in the gaps, smooth over the dubbing issues, and invest themselves in the voyage of Dolittle and his friends. Assuming they can understand a damn word he says, they’ll be enchanted by Downey Jr’s performance and characterisation, both of which knock one Newt Scamander right off his wizard’s perch.

Yes, ultimately, weary reviewers might see Dolittle as a movie that is defeated by its initial ambition and its subsequent direction-changes. Shove an audience of kids in front of the movie though, and they’ll laugh, cry, cheer and tremble a lip all the way through the voyage of the newest Doctor Dolittle on the block. Be More Kid, and you might love it as much as they do.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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