Rated PG, 106 minutes
Well at least it isn't as bad as "Cats." While it's not exactly great, the likable but uneven new children's film "Dolittle," starring a charmingly bored Robert Downey Jr.
as the famed animal whisperer, does have that going for it. This occasionally fun and busy iteration of Hugh Lofting's classic literary character of "The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle," following Rex Harrison 1960's version and the 1990's Eddie Murphy one, comes marketed as a children's movie (and an pricey one at that), and they're likely to enjoy it more than anyone.
The eccentric John Dolittle (Downey), a famed doctor and veterinarian in Victorian England, becomes a hermit after his wife's death, hiding himself away behind the high
walls of Dolittle Manor, with only his menagerie of animals for company. But when Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) falls gravely ill, a reluctant Dolittle is forced to set sail on an epic adventure to a mythical island in search of a cure, regaining his wit and courage as he crosses old adversaries and encounters wondrous creatures.
Clearly, Downey doesn't have enough to do besides counting his Marvel cash, so he's back in Sherlock mode as another famous character, traipsing the world, talking to animals and generally wreaking havoc in the pleasant yet very unfocused "Dolittle," which may have its studio Universal on pins and needles after the "Cats" debacle. As a whole, it starts off OK, then goes a bit off the rails in the later going, when somehow a gassy dragon - yes you read that right - makes its way into the mix to help Dolittle get his mojo back.
The $175 million production directed by Oscar-winner Stephen Gaghan ("Traffic") is a slick one, armed with handsome photography from Guillermo Navarro ("Night at the Museum"), energetic music from Danny Elfman, and loads of visuals and fun character voices from an all-star cast that includes Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson and as a ferocious tiger with issues, Ralph Fiennes.
"Dolittle" is one of the busiest films of late that accomplishes so little in terms of plotting and character, that you may not even notice the bad guys: Michael Sheen, Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent, and in a somewhat odd role as a pirate, Antonio Banderas. Of the many animal voices, "The Big Sick's" Nanjiani, as a sock-wearing osterich, and Cena, as a lovable polar bear, have the most fun as they bicker back and forth in the adventure to help Dolittle save the queen. Downey, for what it's worth, is charming as usual, but his disinterested performance feels like his mind is elsewhere (maybe on all that Marvel cash).
After this, which may do slightly better financially than "Cats" but still highly unlikely to earn back its production budget, is a difficult lesson for Universal: find less expensive projects that don't involve talking or singing animals (in this case - a farting dragon). Enjoyable, forgettable and a minor distraction for the young ones, "Dolittle" is a puff piece that will have Downey admirers watching "Iron Man" again for the umpteenth time.