“DOLITTLE” — 3 stars — Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson; PG (some action, rude humor and brief language); in general release; running time: 106 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The last few years have kicked off with a family comedy pairing British humor and CGI animal characters. The best of these have been the two “Paddington” movies — 2018’s “Peter Rabbit” was on the disappointing end of the spectrum (we’ll see if its sequel fares better this April).
Stephen Gaghan’s “Dolittle” falls somewhere in the middle of the quality range, casting a post-“Iron Man” Robert Downey Jr. in the latest incarnation of the well-traveled Dr. Dolittle character, and sending him on a family-friendly adventure that tries to punch some color into the January blahs.
A brief animated prologue introduces the famous veterinarian, gifted with the supernatural ability to communicate with animals. We also learn of his love Lily (Kasia Smutniak), the “fearless explorer,” and Dolittle’s subsequent heartbreak after her expedition is lost at sea.
“Dolittle’s” live-action story picks up some years after Lily’s death, when two kids arrive at the Dolittle sanctuary in search of the now-reclusive doctor. What they find is a muttering, scraggly-haired and unkempt mess, barely distinguishable from his animal friends and loath to speak to humans.
Eventually, the kids pierce through the doctor’s embittered exterior. Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) comes from a family of avid hunters and has brought the doctor a wounded squirrel that got caught in some duck-hunting crossfire. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) is a mistress to Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) and has far more dire news: The queen has been poisoned. If she dies, Dolittle’s sanctuary will lose its charter forever.
One meeting with the Queen’s entourage later, the whole crew sets out on a quest to find the Eden Tree, which supposedly holds the cure to Victoria’s ailment. The journey will be perilous, and Dolittle will have to face an old adversary named King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) in order to get the directions to the tree from Lily’s old travel journal. But they’ll also have to deal with the duplicitous Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen), who is a servant of the queen in title only.
Downey Jr.’s Dr. Dolittle is campy, hamming it up and channeling a unique character caught between his proper British sensibilities and the animal instincts his abilities have enhanced. A few CGI standouts rise above the fray (often literally), including the gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) and the parrot Poly (Emma Thompson), who also narrates the film. There’s a lot of wacky humor — some of which skews scatalogical, leading to the film’s PG rating.
“Dolittle” is cute and quirky, but the film falls short of the wit and creativity of the “Paddington” movies. Seriously, if you haven’t seen those, they should be first on your list — and you don’t even need kids to enjoy them.
Rating explained: “Dolittle” is rated PG for intense action and some crude humor.