When we first meet Dr. John Dolittle (Downey) he’s at the Howard Hughes recluse stage of his life. The passing of his wife has left him despondent, unable to enjoy the company of humans so he lives in seclusion with only a menagerie of animals for company.
To pass the time he plays chess with a timid gorilla named Chee-Chee (voice of Rami Malek) and in conversation with the various animals who crowd his home, including his trusted macaw advisor Polynesia (voice of Emma Thompson) and Jip (voice of Tom Holland), a bespectacled dog.
“I don’t care about anyone, anywhere, anymore,” the doctor says.
Of course, that’s not true. When animal lover Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) shows up at Dolittle’s gate with an injured squirrel (voice of Craig Robinson)—“I’m too beautiful to die,” the squirrel says.—on the same day the doctor is summoned to Buckingham Palace to see the ailing Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), he is brought back into the human world. Her Majesty is gravely ill and if she dies the treasury will take the animal sanctuary Dr. Dolittle calls home. Worse, all his animals will be thrown out into the world during hunting season.
To save the Queen‘s life he must embark on a journey to find the Eden Tree and its magical, healing fruit. It’s trip fraught with danger and is the same journey that cost his beloved wife her life. Add to that some palace intrigue, an island of misfits and thieves, turbo boosting whales, a vengeful squirrel and even a dragon and you have a new chapter in the life of the man who can talk to animals.
Kids will likely find “Dolittle’s” chatty animals amusing but this isn’t simply a movie about wise cracking beasts. At its beating heart it is a movie about pain, but, as one character says, not the kind of hurt inflicted by a bullet or a knife. It’s about the agony of losing someone. Dolittle’s heart is broken by the death of his wife, and that ache is the engine that propels the entire movie. So, while the young’uns may giggle at the animals but the movie’s underlying downer vibe and generic approach suggests that Dolittle’s wife isn’t the only lifeless part of this movie.
Downey plays the character with a sense of bemused confusion, topped with a mealy-mouthed Billy Connolly impression that changes from scene to scene. It’s a pantomime performance that makes the best of his finely tuned comic timing but feels sloppy and needlessly mannered.
“Dolittle” contains some good pop psychology for children about working together—”Teamwork makes the dream work!”—and facing their fears but overall a movie featuring talking animals shouldn’t be this banal.