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Jan 19, 2020
| by | Kate O'Hare

'Dolittle': Robert Downey Jr., Critters and Kids Add Up to Harmless Fun

Dolittle may not be a great movie, but it is, as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy said of Planet Earth, "Mostly harmless." That's rare enough to earn it a qualified recommendation.

In the annals of movie-criticism, though, NPR's take on the film, in theaters now, is a standout:

Dolittle is not a film. Dolittle is a crime scene in need of forensic analysis. Something happened here. Something terrible. Something inexplicable.

Honestly, from the POV of a moviegoer rather than a film aficionado, Dolittle (official site here) has its issues, but it's not as bad as all that. In fact, if you're looking for a movie take the kids to, you could do a lot worse -- provided you have a high tolerance for items being yanked from a large creature's posterior and the flatulence that results (young boys in particular may love this bit).

Robert Downey Jr., armed with an admittedly inexplicable Welsh-ish accent, plays the title character, created by children's author Hugh Lofting in 1920. It's set in the very early Victorian period, and Dr. Dolittle, grieving over the loss of his adventurer wife (Kasia Smutniak), has retreated to his overgrown estate, surrounded by a Noah's Ark-worth of CGI animals, with whom he has learned to converse.

They include a bossy parrot (Emma Thompson), a fear-struck gorilla (Rami Malek), a confused duck (Octavia Spencer), a bespectacled dog (Tom Holland), and a perpetually chilly polar bear (John Cena) and his ostrich frenemy (Kumail Nanjiani).

When an animal-loving local boy (Harry Collettt) brings Dolittle a wounded squirrel (Craig Robinson), he gets sucked into the reclusive doctor's world. At the same time, preteen Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) arrives with plea for Dolittle to come to Buckingham Palace and save the life of young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley).

Dolittle reluctantly agrees, and that sends him on an ocean voyage to a far island in search of a magical cure, pursued by his archrival Dr. Mudfly (Michael Sheen).

Also starring are Antonio Banderas and Jim Broadbent.

The movie does cast a disapproving eye on hunting animals but makes no mention of the fact that Dolittle seems to use his furry and feathered companions as personal servants. The animals themselves are highly anthropomorphized and not especially recognizable as real creatures at all (including the idea that all animals have the equivalent of a human verbal language).

I saw the film in a theater full of children and, while there wasn't wild enthusiasm at the end, there was applause. Apparently the film was tinkered with prior to release, including script rewrites and the addition of animal characters. So, it does have a slapped-together, disjointed feeling.

There are some minor incidences of faith -- including Dolittle arriving at one point as if in answer to an Anglican cleric's prayer. As Movieguide pointed out there is "some action violence, brief, light foul language and some light environmentalist elements and pagan elements," but it's far less objectionable than some other children's movies I've seen.

There's no sexual content or human nudity (the animals are generally unclothed, but that's fine). The humor is not especially sophisticated -- although the wry Downey has a way of adding irony to a line that may not have been written with any.

So, while Dolittle is daffy and teaches children nothing about real animals, it doesn't set out to offend or outrage (aside from the aforementioned flatulence). It's short, visually bold and colorful, amusing and has a touch of sweetness.

On the general sliding scale of children's films, it lands somewhere in the middle. It won't give kids nightmares or teach them things that conflict with traditional values (although families that also hunt may roll their eyes).

So, if you want to take the kids to the theater, Dolittle will do no harm and may give them some fun and laughs.

Image: Universal Pictures

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager and blog editor at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on our website, FacebookTwitter and YouTube.

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