Robert Downey Jr. riffed with a raccoon in the “Avengers” movies but gets a whole menagerie of chatty critters in “Dolittle,” an adventure that’s mainly for the youngest Iron Man fans.
Author Hugh Lofting’s popular literary veterinarian from Victorian England marks the first character Downey has taken on in his post-Marvel career – a role also played by Rex Harrison and even Eddie Murphy. While his Welsh accent is a little all over the place, Downey takes naturally to the wild style and quirky persona of a dude who talks to animals, though most everything else about “Dolittle” (★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters nationwide Friday) just doesn’t measure up to its A-list star.
Directed by Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”), the movie opens with a gorgeous graphic telling of John Dolittle’s somewhat tragic backstory: After his beloved wife died on the high seas, Downey became a hermit and shut himself off from humanity, only communicating with the animals at his royally funded sanctuary. That’s where young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) finds him after the boy accidentally shoots a squirrel named Kevin (voiced by Craig Robinson). Tommy implores Dolittle for help, though the doctor is in a primate state, grunting and playing chess with his cripplingly shy gorilla pal Chee-Chee (Rami Malek).
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Robert Downey Jr. is the latest to take on the eccentric doctor who can talk to animals in the fantasy adventure "Dolittle." (Photo: JONATHAN PRIME/UNIVERSAL PICTURES)
Dolittle helps Tommy out and makes note of the youngster’s own innate connection with the doctor’s posse, which includes right-hand parrot Poly (Emma Thompson) and a couple of bantering frenemies in Plimpton the idiosyncratic ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani) and the always-cold polar bear Yoshi (John Cena). Just after Dolittle and Tommy cement their friendship, the vet is called to Buckingham Palace, where he finds out that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) is deathly ill, and he must venture with his peeps to mythical Eden Tree Island to find the cure.
Downey imbues Dolittle with wily eccentricity and an abundance of smarts: Instead of his abilities being a superpower, the ways he talks with every animal species is more of a learned thing, and Downey sells that intelligence. (It also helps that we watched him successfully play a genius playboy billionaire philanthropist for more than a decade.) Dolittle also has a sense of danger and a hint of darkness, like this guy’s really seen some stuff in his day, which the movie teases in places but too often defaults back to predictable family-friendly thrills.
Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, center) makes friends with (clockwise from left) ostrich Plimpton (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), squirrel Kevin (Craig Robinson), polar bear Yoshi (John Cena), duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek) and parrot Polynesia (Emma Thompson) in "Dolittle." (Photo: UNIVERSAL PICTURES)
Children will obviously love the zoo of animal personalities, and Gaghan has recruited an impressive voice cast including Downey’s Marvel BFF Tom Holland as bespectacled dog Jip, Octavia Spencer as maternal peg-legged duck Dab-Dab, and Ralph Fiennes as Barry, a vicious tiger and former patient of Dolittle’s with lingering anger issues. The most fun is Kevin, a melodramatic rodent who harbors ill will toward Stubbins, though the digital effects that re-create these creatures are a mixed bag. Seeing Dolittle ride crazily around on his feathery steed Plimpton, you wish they would have used that spiffy photorealistic “Lion King” technology.
In terms of the non-furry cast, Antonio Banderas seems to have fun chewing scenery as a pirate king with a personal history with Dolittle, but Michael Sheen’s villainous royal physician is forgettably one-dimensional as the doctor’s mustache-twirling old rival. Those two in a sense symbolize how middling “Dolittle” is on the whole: For every really cool interaction Downey’s hero has with one of his animals as a caring listener, there’s either an over-the-top spit take or an eye-rolling cheesy line of dialogue.
Instead of being a franchise starter that roars, “Dolittle” simply squeaks by without any real nuance.
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