First appearing in a series of kids’ books by author Hugh Lofting, John Dolittle is a pet doc who can speak to and understand pretty much any animal. This latest iteration of the oft-adapted character serves as the first post-MCU gig for Robert Downey Jr, sporting a warped Welsh accent.
As the story opens, Dolittle is mourning the death of his wife (and playing chess with a gorilla). He’s roused from his grief-stricken sabbatical by a couple of plucky kids who sneak into his compound and convince him to save Queen Victoria (played by Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley), who is currently languishing in a coma, the possible victim of poisoning.
You may ask yourself why a veterinarian has been tasked with such a burden. There is no answer, but there is a quest: Dolittle must find some magical fruit in order to revive the Queen, so off he goes with a variety of animals (cowardly ape, shivering Polar bear, wisecracking ostrich) to not only save the monarch but ultimately his soul.
This all sounds good, but between Downey's asthmatic Tom Jones impression, a script that relentlessly bombards the viewer with anachronistic pop-culture references, and contemporary slang (a squid says "Snitches get stitches"), plus a largely unstructured story that ping-pongs from one adventure to the next with little focus or cohesion, we’re left with a bizarre, extravagant, slapsticky mess.
Lacking the real-life movie magic of the 1967 original, or the warmth of Eddie Murphy's ’90s reboot, this cynical reimagining is as lifeless and dead-eyed as it's digitally rendered animals. Despite a director of note (Syriana’s Stephen Gaghan) and stellar voice cast (Tom Holland, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer) Dolittle 2020 does little we haven’t seen before.