Shortly after British author Hugh Lofting published The Story of Doctor Dolittle in 1920, adaptations for radio and film followed. They never stopped. An animated series came out in the ’70s, a stage musical made its debut in 1998 and Eddie Murphy starred in a comedy released that same year.
Now, Robert Downey Jr. portrays the doctor who can talk to animals in a new film simply dubbed Dolittle. Loosely based on The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, the second Dolittle book, it opens area-wide on Friday.
Though the storyline stumbles mid-film when the flick turns into a stereotypical fantasy adventure, Downey makes for a decent title character, and he’s surrounded by some terrific actors to voice the various animals too.
When we first encounter Dr. John Dolittle (Downey) in the film, he’s grown an enormous beard and holed himself up in the Dolittle Manor, where he’s mourning the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak). After young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) shows up with a surly squirrel (Craig Robinson) that he’s accidentally shot, Dolittle springs to action and performs emergency surgery to save the little guy.
At the same time that Tommy shows up at the manor, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) also arrives with news from Buckingham Palace. The queen (Jessie Buckley) has taken ill, and Lady Rose thinks Dolittle can help. She convinces him to trim his out-of-control facial hair and go with her to London to diagnose the queen’s illness.
Dolittle decides that the queen needs an antidote that can only be found on a mythical island, so he and a motley crew of his favorite animals set off on a boat. Little do they realize that there’s a conspiracy afoot, and his rival and arch nemesis Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen) follows him with a crew of British soldiers intent on stealing the cure from Dolittle once he finds it.
Predictably enough, the doctor and his pals encounter a number of exotic creatures on their trip, and they have a particularly bad run-in with Rassoulim (Antonio Banderas), leader of a band of pirates, and Barry (Ralph Fiennes), a fierce tiger with golden fangs. They also meet some new friends, including James (Jason Mantzoukas), a smart aleck dragonfly who helps them deal with Rassoulim and Barry.
Other actors such as Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard and Frances de la Tour lend their voices to the movie too and make notable contributions.
Given its history (the movie was bumped from last year’s release schedule after testing poorly with audiences), Dolittle isn’t likely to be a smash hit; but it retains the charm of the source material, something that can’t be said for several of the previous adaptations.