Having seen the 1967 Rex Harrison Doctor Dolittle in the cinema as a child (it was the same year as Disney’s first Jungle Book), I was – at the very least – curious about the latest film with Robert Downey Jr in the titular role.
What would it look like with CGI at its present level; would it have an environmental message; and what would Downey Jr be like in his post-Tony Stark career?
Based – loosely – on the novel, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, from Hugo Lofting’s series about the eponymous doctor, it opens with him having withdrawn from any form of public life after his wife has died.
But Queen Victoria needs him – because she’s ill – and Stubbins, the teenage son of a family of local hunters needs him, because he’s accidentally shot a squirrel while trying not to shoot animals.
It is not staggeringly original, but it doesn’t really suffer from that.
While Stephen Gaghan’s film never feels howlingly original, it is superbly well executed and has enough laughs (and one big emotional moment) to retain audience interest.
If I could talk to the animals was the most famous of Leslie Bricusse’s songs from the ’67 film. It was the daydream of every child – and judging by the children in the audience today, little has changed, even without the song.
There’s really no message other than ‘be nice to each other’, ’family is what you decide it is’ and don’t be bad to animals (a message I first learned from Sheri Lewis and Lamb Chop many centuries ago).
But not everything has to have Big Messages.
The cast is a joy. Forget the faux furore over Downey Jr’s Welsh accent – the accent is unexpected, but a) why not? and b) it doesn’t get in the way of anything. And his characterisation doesn’t have the smugness of Ironman.
In support, Jim Broadbent as Lord Thomas Badgley, Michael Sheen as Dr Blair Müdfly and Antonio Banderas as Rassouli, the king of pirates, have huge fun as panto baddies.
Harry Collett is a charming Stubbins, while Carmel Laniado as Lady Rose (one of Victoria’s maids) also turns in a delightful, gutsy performance.
But there are stars aplenty in the voice cast, including Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spence, Tom Holland, Ralph Feinnes (taking a leaf out of George Saunders’s books as a tiger named Barry) Selema Gomez, Marion Cotillard and Frances de la Tour.
It all rather reminds me of Peter Rabbit – the sequel to which lands soon.
Far from a classic is is, but it’s still perfectly enjoyable light entertainment for the end of a working week. And that is not a case of damning with faint praise.