‘Dolittle’ Review: A Bear of a Time

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It doesn’t speak well for “Dolittle,” the latest in a long, undistinguished line of movies about the veterinarian who can talk to animals, that one of the only affecting moments involves a stick insect. The interaction is conspicuously one-sided. For the doc, who’s played by

Robert Downey Jr.,

it’s exactly like talking to a stick, but at least he gets to soliloquize about the state of his troubled soul. All too often Dolittle, originally the hero of series of books by the English author Hugh Lofting, functions as a foil for a hyperactive menagerie of computer-generated creatures in a production that achieves the dubious distinction of combining too-muchness with not-enoughness: too much tumult and chaos, not enough dramatic focus; too many animals with clever names spouting glib one-liners, not enough simple human—or for that matter nonhuman—feeling.

What a waste! Few stars in Hollywood can approach Mr. Downey’s quick, flip wit, his laconic way with words, and for a few fleeting minutes he seems to have a role worthy of his gifts. This Dolittle comes on as a half-mad hermit with haunted eyes. After losing the only love of his life, he has shut himself off from human society, surrounded by his animal family. (In one charmingly inventive scene he confronts Chee-Chee, a timid gorilla, across a chess board on which mice scurry back and forth, carrying the chess pieces on their heads.)

The animals are beguiling until they wear out their collective welcome. An excellent voice cast includes

Rami Malek

as the big ape;

Emma Thompson

as Poly, a parrot and the brains of Dolittle’s operation; Marion Cotillard as Tutu, a desert fox;

Selena Gomez

as Betsy, a giraffe;

John Cena

as Yoshi, a polar bear with chronic chills; and

Octavia Spencer

as Dab-Dab, a duck who lays an egg in the middle of a crisis.

Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) with Poly (voice of Emma Thompson)


Photo:

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

But Mr. Downey is stuck with a muffled Welsh accent that’s somewhere between

Richard Burton

and

Hugh Griffith,

though nowhere that’s funny, while the shapeless plot amounts to a series of and-then-and-thens. Dolittle and a young assistant,

Tommy Stubbins

(

Harry Collett,

the boy in “Dunkirk”), go off with the animals to see a young and mortally ill Queen Victoria (

Jessie Buckley

). Then the doctor takes his assistant and his traveling zoo to a mythical island in an unspecified sea to find a cure for the queen. Then he encounters a king named Rassouli—a good thing, since he’s played by

Antonio Banderas

—as well as a fire-breathing dragon; that’s a bad thing, since Dolittle extracts a bagpipe from the dragon’s innards in a gross-out scene that succeeds in being disgusting.

Stephen Gaghan

directed, clumsily, from a screenplay he perpetrated with

Dan Gregor

and

Doug Mand.

Dab-Dab isn’t the only egg-layer in the group.

Write to Joe Morgenstern at joe.morgenstern@wsj.com

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