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'Dolittle' review: Elaborately staged, but charmless adaptation

(from left) Duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), polar bear

(from left) Duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), polar bear Yoshi (John Cena), parrot Polynesia (Emma Thompson), Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani), Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) and gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek) in  "Dolittle." Credit: Universal Pictures

PLOT A man who can talk to animals embarks on a perilous sea voyage.

CAST Robert Downey Jr., Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson

RATED PG (scenes of peril)

LENGTH 1:46

BOTTOM LINE Downey veers dangerously into Johnny Depp territory in this elaborately staged but charmless adaptation of the classic childrens' books.

Quick, what’s the best adaptation of the Doctor Dolittle stories? There’s the 1967 musical, starring a miscast Rex Harrison as the eccentric animal doctor who can speak to his patients, and there are two versions with Eddie Murphy, whose natural warmth almost made up for the abundance of poo-poo humor. And if rock albums count, my favorite is "Doolittle," by the indie band Pixies, whose lead singer, Black Francis, can screech and caw like nobody's business.

Robert Downey Jr. attempts to put his own stamp on the character in “Dolittle,” his first film since laying his career-defining Iron Man role to rest. Directed and co-written by Stephen Gaghan, "Dolittle” is stuffed to the gills with CGI animals, top-notch talents and steampunk-inspired contraptions, but Downey is the selling point. Having entertained the PG-13 crowd across a score of Marvel movies, can Downey work his roguish charm on the younger set?

Actually, what charm this film has comes from its animated animals. They'll be familiar to anyone who’s seen a “Toy Story” movie: Chee-Chee, the hulking but cowardly ape (voice of Rami Malek); Plimpton, the nervous ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani); Yoshi, the dudely polar bear (John Cena); and so on. Emma Thompson, as the wise parrot Polynesia, plays to type and does so well.

The humans are a mixed bag. There's some welcome scenery-chewing from Antonio Banderas as King Rassouli (the piratical lord of a hidden island) and Michael Sheen as the sneering Blair Müdfly (he's been poisoning the Queen of England). The two kid characters, however – plucky Stubbins (Harry Collett) and prim Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) — are utterly lifeless. 

As for Downey, his Dolittle is one weird creation — not in an inspired, Gene-Wilder-as-Willie-Wonka way, but in a baffling, Johnny-Depp-as-Mortdecai way. He's a bit of this, a bit of that: a fun-loving kook and surly recluse in a tie-dyed vest. For some reason, Downey has also made the character Welsh, a nationality that, to my American mind, conjures up absolutely nothing. Did Downey just want to take on a challenging accent? And is that why all his lines seem to have been re-dubbed? He's the only actor in the film whose tone and volume never vary from a low, close mumble.

 "Dolittle" has its moments, but those are few and far between. On the bright side, at least nobody tries to sing.

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