‘Dolittle’ Hits All the Marks of a Classic Storybook Tale, but CGI Can Only Capture so Much Wonder

When we first meet Robert Downey Jr.’s incarnation of author Hugh Lofting’s magical veterinarian who can talk to animals, he is playing a friendly game of chess against a cowardly gorilla (Rami Malek), the board being made up of mice holding the tops of pieces atop their heads like a crown. A boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) stumbles into Doctor Dolittle’s empathic world by following a squawking parrot (Emma Thompson) through a tunnel, finding a field of peacocks and poppies on the other side. “Dolittle” writer/director Stephen Gaghan’s contemporary reimagining of a children’s classic, does all it can to hang a lantern on the influence of its whimsical forebearers, ranging from L. Frank Baum to Lewis Carroll, but chatty CGI creatures voiced by celebrities can only capture so much wonder.

Gaghan’s film opens with a hasty animated prologue, wherein we learn that the famed go-to veterinarian of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has locked himself away behind the cracked ivy-covered walls of his property grounds, following the tragic death of his wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak), who was lost at sea like the parents of a Disney princess. The Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), an eager-to-impress royal youth, is dispatched to bring the doctor to Buckingham Palace, in order to tend to the ailments of her mother who has fallen deathly ill. Crossing paths with Stubbins, the younglings, with assistance from Dolittle’s animal troupe, find themselves having to persuade the depressed doctor to come out of his hermithood and save the life of the Queen.

Lady Rose also informs the doctor that his land will be sold to the treasury in the event of her mother’s passing, which means the animals will have to be released into the wild, and hunting season is upon them. After traveling to see her Royal Highness on the back of an ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), Dolittle finds himself face-to-face with an old school rival, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen) and the hoarse Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent), who are responsible for the Queen’s deteriorating health. Lady Rose realizes that the only way to save Victoria is to bring her the fruit of the mythical Eden Tree, which Lily perished in search of. 

Stubbins proclaims himself the doctor’s apprentice, joining Dolittle’s neurotic band of animal friends on a journey across the sea to find the magic tree. Once the party sets sail, a more Robert Louis Stevenson-esque action-adventure sets in, albeit one significantly less engrossing. Our crew’s is attacked at sea by Müdfly’s more industrially advanced vessel, before finding themselves trying to steal a book of Lily’s research from the King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), pirate lord of Monteverde Isle, an exoticized sea-side castle setting that feels like a blend of “Gulliver’s Travels” and Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” remake. It hits all the marks of a classic storybook tale but revolves around vapid sequences that never fully transport you into another world.

As an adventure film, “Dolittle” presents plenty of danger but its physics are cartoonish, and the slapstick CGI bland, that the stakes never feel genuinely dire, as opposed to something like director Henry Selick’s fantastic and frightening stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach,” or even the more fluffy retelling of a buccaneer romp like “Muppet Treasure Island,” where the laugh of Tim Curry’s Long John Silver established genuine peril, as well as excitement. “Dolittle” is visually colorful, with a big enough budget to create some panache, but its overall flat, CGI dependent construction, villains with buffoon brains, and super swift editing tactics hinder a script that is constantly dismissive of its own consequences. 

In an attempt to inject non-existent dramatic tension into the story early on, a fox (Marion Cotillard) riding a giraffe (Selena Gomez), wake up young Stubbins to initiate a ludicrous chase scene, which is almost entirely shot in extreme close-ups of the poorly rendered animals trotting faces, and lasts about thirty seconds. Nothing fantastical about the movie is given a moment to breathe light into the story, and the darker aspects of the narrative feel too afraid to get adult enough to properly resonate, so as not to alienate the youngest possible audience members. Fart jokes and other unnecessary juvenile touches are paid more attention than the empty themes of natural preservation “Dolittle” fails to properly illustrate.

Chasing the dream of a classic children’s film a la “Mary Poppins” or “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Dolittle” manages to be significantly less imaginary than its predecessors. Even though those films were made over 50 years ago, they better capture the sense of a small child’s boundless wonderment. Gaghan’s family film might wear fanciful inspirations on its sleeve but does little with its narrative potential outside walking over expected clichés and genre conventions, embarking on an adventure that’s a lot less perilous than it is pubescent. 

Dolittle” opens Jan. 17 in theaters nationwide.