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Robert Downey Jr in Dolittle.
Robert Downey Jr in Dolittle.
Photo: M-Net


3/5 Stars


After losing his wife seven years earlier, the eccentric Dr. John Dolittle hermits himself away behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor, with only his menagerie of exotic animals for company. But, when the young Queen Victoria falls gravely ill, Dolittle, joined by his animal friends, is forced to set sail on an epic adventure, regaining his wit and courage as he crosses old adversaries and discovers wondrous creatures.


Robert Downey Jr steers the ship in this sometimes-chaotic reimagining of the classic story of Dr Dolittle, the man who can speak to animals. On the big screen the character was first played by Rex Harrison in a 1967 movie, and most recently Eddie Murphy in a pair of blockbuster comedies roughly 20 years ago. The animal-loving medicine man was first introduced to the world in a series of children's books by Hugh Lofting, the first of which was titled The Story of Doctor Dolittle, and released in 1920.

This big-budget flick is not an origin story though, and as viewers saw in the trailer, it is based on Hugh's second book The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. In keeping with the source material in this new film – directed by Stephen Gaghan – Dolittle shuns human patients in favour of animals. However, unlike the book, when we first find the doctor in this movie, he is an eccentric, unwashed recluse somewhere in a massive mansion. He has been left heartbroken after an unimaginable loss.

Just like in the book, a young boy named Stubbins stumbles into his world after injuring a squirrel and bursts it wide open. The movie seems to be set in early Victorian England, but the Queen Victoria we meet on the big screen is not one that I've seen in any history book during that period. But then again, who cares about historical accuracy when you're watching animals talk to humans?

Anyway, without giving too much away, we soon end up going on an adventure with Doctor Dolittle, Stubbins (played by Harry Collett), Poly (a parrot voiced by Emma Thompson), Dab-Dab (a duck voiced by Octavia Spencer), Chee-Chee (a primate voiced by Rami Malek), Yoshi (a polar bear voiced by John Cena) and more.

After its initial filming, this movie was reportedly massively reworked by Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Although it still has Stephen Gaghan's name as the only director I have to say watching it, it feels disjointed. It's as though there were several tones, directing styles and editors at work. I thought it was trying to be several movies all squished into one. If it were a dessert, it would be more like an Eaton Mess than a perfect souffle. It's sweet, light and fun, but not exquisite in its execution.

Some of the exposition feels rushed, and the payoff at the end left me feeling ultimately underwhelmed, which is sad because a strong Robert Downey Jr and a cast this strong could have been used better.

However, I did watch the movie with a cinema full of young children, and I have to say, a lot of jokes did land, and they seemed entertained throughout. So, I think younger kids will enjoy it, and there are moments when Robert shines. I remembered in an instant that he's the hero that I love… 3000.

Other than the lead, the standout performances come from John Cena as loveable Yoshi, Rami Malek as Chee-Chee and young Dunkirk actor Harry Collett – his chemistry with Robert is heart-warming and easy to watch.

If you have kids to entertain for a few hours and are a big, big Robert Downey Jr fan you won't go wrong with this film.


Dolittle airs Sunday at 20:05 on M-Net (DStv 101)

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