Laugh with the Animals

Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Michael Sheen, Antonio Banderas

Rated PG

Released January 17th, 2020

The first thing you should know about Dolittle is that Robert Downey, Jr. does not sing “Talk to the Animals”, the Oscar winning song sung by Rex Harrison from Richard Attenborough’s 1967 film Doctor Dolittle. A missed opportunity! After all, RDJ recorded an album called The Futurist in 2004. Surely the thought crossed his mind. 

Downey, Jr. is Doctor John Dolittle, a man in Victorian England who can talk to animals. I mean, all of us can talk to any animal we please, but this guy can understand their responses. Just like the 1998 version with Eddie Murphy, it turns out animals got jokes. Lots of jokes. Who knew animals were so quippy? Maybe it’s a good thing I can’t understand my cats if all they’re doing all day are John Mulaney routines. 

Dolittle lives sequestered with his menagerie, having shunned the human race following tragedy years ago. But when young Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) informs him that the Queen is sick and only the good doctor can find a cure for her, Dolittle becomes an adventure movie, a quest to find a book of scientific notes written by Dolittle’s deceased wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) that is the key to saving the life of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). 

Antonio Banderas and Michael Sheen are among the few humans we encounter, but most of the supporting cast is computer generated. The voice cast is impressive. You’ll hear one liners from Emma Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Tom Holland, Rami Malek, and many more. The CGI for the animals is uniformly well done, with more consistent effects than is sometimes seen in some blockbusters like this. As a fan of the insect kingdom, it was a pleasure to have stick insects, ants, and dragonflies involved. 

Things take a turn toward the fantastic with the addition of a dragon, but you’re watching a movie about someone who can understand animals, so just go with it. I found it interesting that there are no villainous animals present. The movie posits the rather radical idea that through communication it is possible to diffuse any violent situation, come to an understanding, and achieve peace. 

Robert Downey, Jr. works his crowd-pleasing magic while doing something different than Tony Stark, which is a welcome change. He’s clearly enjoying being able to use his physical comedy skills somewhat seen in his performances as Sherlock Holmes, but on full display here in his version of Doctor Dolittle, a combination of Charlie Chaplin and Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. Downey, Jr. also attempts a Welsh accent, which isn’t always successful and may have been redubbed after filming. 

Writer/director Stephen Gaghan is best known for Traffic, but he is also responsible for the great thriller Abandon, with Katie Holmes and Benjamin Bratt. Gaghan handled reported reshoots and production issues with aplomb, resulting in a Dolittle film that is better than the Rex Harrison or Eddie Murphy editions.

I took my eight year old son to see Dolittle, as I believe he’s the target audience. He liked it, and I believe families will enjoy this good natured movie, as well. It’s a fine way to spend a cold January day. Sometimes film critics can be too harsh when it comes to movies for kids. Dolittle is adventurous family fun that simply wants you to laugh with the animals. Who are we to refuse?