Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 41 minutes
If someone had told me beforehand that this movie was essentially a kid-friendly combination of the Uncharted video game series mixed with “Pirates of the Caribbean”, where the human companions were animals and there’s a lot less combat, my teenagers wouldn’t have had to beg me to take them. That is to say, it turns out “Dolittle”, Robert Downey Jr.’s first post-MCU headliner, is actually a lot of fun and right in this adventure lover’s wheelhouse.
As much as “Dolittle” follows the titular doctor (Downey Jr.), who is a sort of super veterinarian that can communicate with animals by speaking their language, it equally is about a young boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) who stumbles upon Dolittle’s overgrown estate in need of emergency animal medical support. Stubbins was out hunting with his uncle and cousin, and we quickly learn that he’s much too soft-hearted toward the cute woodland critters, which eventually makes it easy for he and Dr. Dolittle to relate. Dolittle has been a recluse up until their meeting, avoiding contact with humanity as he endlessly grieves over the loss of his wife. From there a young emissary of the Queen of England arrives, beckoning him to Buckingham Palace. The Queen has fallen ill and needs Dolittle’s help. Up until this point, the story feels pretty generic and uninteresting, but upon learning that the necessary cure lies in a magical fruit on a mythical undiscovered island that Dolittle’s wife died while searching for, the excitement rises considerably.
The bulk of the film then plays out like a traditional adventure tale, with some highlights being a thrilling chase at-sea, the infiltration of an island of outlaws, and an ever-present over-the-top villainous rival determined to stop Dolittle and steal his praise. Along the way Dolittle must overcome his fear of opening up to others while Stubbins gets many (often amusing) life-changing lessons and discovers a passion for working with the animals. And it’s understandable why, because Dolittle’s animal friends are silly, sweet, and always entertaining. Voicework by some big Hollywood stars is mostly a delight, with Kumail Nanjiani’s Plimpton the Emu, John Cena’s Yoshi the Polar Bear, and Ralph Fiennes’ Barry the Tiger being particular standouts.
That’s not to say that everything comes up roses in this newest adaptation of the classic American children’s book. Downey Jr. chooses to use an odd, distracting accent and plays the character with an eccentricity that reminds of Captain Jack Sparrow. The animal banter is mostly great but there are definitely some dud jokes, too. And the CGI leaves a lot to be desired, getting increasingly more noticeably bad the more action that is taking place.
Still, even though it may not be particularly memorable, “Dolittle” ends up being a hilarious and wholesome mythical adventure that is fun for the entire family. Talking animals will always be a hit with kids and the added elements of high seas adventure and pirate-like action combined with the search for a magical item will keep teens and adults interested as well. Throw in some lovely relationship-building and a big dose of hope, and you’ve got a great option for a weekend family theater outing.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.