Nothing is funnier to a kid than talking animals and jokes about flatulence. Nothing is sweeter to a preteen than a kiss on the cheek. And for adults, nothing is more ironic than an enduring story that confirms their worst anxieties in front of those same kids. Dolittle, directed and co-written by Stephen Gaghan, combines all these elements and more in a cheeky family-fun adventure.
The story, however, couldn't be more different from the well-known 1998 version. That film starring Eddie Murphy as a doctor who could speak to animals was grounded in small-town reality. In this adaptation, Robert Downey Jr.'s Dolittle is about as grounded as the International Space Station. In order to save his land from being forfeited upon the death of the Queen of England, Dolittle and his misfit animals venture hundreds of miles to South America in search of a precious plant to save her life.
Instead of dubbed real-life animals, the animals are rendered from visual effects. They are gorgeous, lifelike creations. The image of the squirrel inside the bag with a gunshot wound is heartbreaking. When the bear is asked to do a "bear thing" and he roars in the ostrich's face, the etched ferociousness is scary. The effects bring out the liveliness of the animals as well as the story.
Dolittle is a smashing, good family time in large thanks to the humor. Every joke leads in or ends a pressing issue faced by the characters. One of the most notable and yet infinitesimal examples would be the fly on a ship that gets eaten by a bird after his final words, "I'm alive, I'm the chosen one!" Without missing a beat, as if nothing happened at all, Michael Sheen's villainous character is in his ship scolding a subordinate for scolding him about his Dolittle obsession.
It's a nonstop, nonsensical parade of fun. And the ringleader holding the chaos all together is Downey Jr. He has solidified his brand of sarcastic humor in the last decade with the likes of Zodiac, Iron Man, and Sherlock Holmes, to name a few. But what he does in Dolittle is offer proof that his comedy translates to a very young audience. The same curt brashness from previous films is also in Dolittle, albeit toned down and made anxious, vulnerable, and relatable. Dolittle is frightened like a child would be. But he's also pushed into a very adult situation where the more helpless creatures are depending on him for courage and leadership. It's a tightrope walk that seems like a cake walk for Downey Jr.
His accent is an odd, Frankenstein-esque creation, which is not quite British or American. It inches closely to a lilting, high Alice in Wonderland character. But its strangeness is amusing and seems perfectly suited for Dolittle's world.
No matter which way you turn, though, the film is directly speaking to some demographic of its audience. The squirrel suffers from PTSD. The gorilla is afraid of everything. Dolittle is afraid of losing someone he loves again. The young boy aches to be with those who truly understand him. That's what the best family films are able to convey; they understand the heart of everyone's fears under the mirage of fantastical stakes and effervescent humor. It's a whimsy retelling and quick to the point. Perhaps not as memorable as other remakes, but families will enjoy the insistent silliness. ~ Lauren Vanderveen