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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

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Dolittle works fairly well as a children’s movie, but it could’ve been so much more.

Beyond Borders

Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.)
Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.)

The creative possibilities of resurrecting the Dr. Dolittle character, the legendary doctor who could converse with the animals — further enhanced with a romantic storyline involving an adventurous woman named Lily, the love of his life — are nearly endless. As the movie starts with a rather nifty animated sequence telling the back story of Lily and John Dolittle and their globetrotting ways, there is the sense this could indeed be material taken to a wholly new level of sophistication and adventure.

The end result, though, falls far short of those lofty heights.

With a reported budget of $175 million, Universal’s hoping to hit box office gold strictly with the tykes. The odds are not in their favor. Dolittle doesn’t carry the much-needed generational crossover appeal star Robert Downey Jr. enjoyed to a ludicrously lucrative level with the Marvel movies.

Here, at any given moment, this fragile work feels like it could spin wildly out of control and completely derail. But it ultimately manages to maintain its unsteady course and survive as a juvenile romp.

Something’s Afoul

From the early going there’s a sense something’s missing. There are talking animals, lots of colorful scenery and oodles of CGI (some good, some not so much). There’s a goofy sense of humor throughout, plenty of cutesy sight gags. And Downey’s there pitching his British accent, perhaps biding his time while getting ready for a third outing as Sherlock Holmes.

After letting the movie digest (it’s a light meal; it doesn’t take long to pass through), it becomes clear the missing ingredient is an elusive one: magic. The movie lacks a sense of wonder. It’s something that’s not easily achieved, but it also feels like the filmmakers never had the desire to generate a sense of wonder, to create a magical experience. Instead, it goes for a Jumanji-like stab at mixing humor and CGI with a dash of adventure. In Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji, it’s a successful cocktail with a little umbrella. Dolittle’s an alcohol-free sugar drink with a gummi sour drop.

It’s so unfortunate; at the core of Dolittle is good story crafted by director Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand and Thomas Shepherd, rooted in the original stories by Hugh Lofting. It’s an odd mix at the keyboard. This is Shepherd’s first effort while Gregor and Mand have a resume full of TV sitcoms, including How I Met Your Mother. As for Gaghan, he’s done some interesting things, most notably Gold with Matthew McConaughey and Syriana with George Clooney. Those were strong dramas. Dolittle resides in a decidedly different realm.

Nonetheless, there is a strong drama underpinning this story. That animated opening explains Lily’s adventurous ways and untimely demise, leaving John Dolittle in a shuttered state for seven years, turning into a recluse and shunning human contact.

The catalyst to bring Dolittle back into active service revolves around the wellbeing of young Queen Victoria. There’s a coup afoot and she’s fallen ill. A young messenger drafts Dolittle into his mission: pick up where Lily left off and find Eden Tree Island. The tree has the only antidote that will revive the queen, who’s on her deathbed, with nefarious forces at the ready to take over the throne.

Curious Case

While the story offers up tons of adventurous angles that could so easily take this material into the thrilling terrain of Indiana Jones or the Pirates of the Caribbean, it repeatedly settles for the lowest common denominator.

Some of the humor falls outside the grasp of the target audience, while not being sophisticated enough to give older audiences something to appreciate — the kind of rarified writing that Pixar and few others have mastered.

Instead, there’s a running joke involving a squirrel shot by a young lad named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk), whose sense of guilt at wounding the creature brings both squirrel and Tommy to Dolittle’s door. There’s some bad taste underlying the surface humor of the squirrel’s comments surrounding his experiences. Maybe there was hope for a sense of social commentary, but the obvious possibilities for both social and environmental awareness go by the wayside even as Dolittle — living in the early 19th century — uses modern colloquialisms like “friggin’.”

After the original Doctor Dolittle, the 1967 version starring Rex Harrison that went on to a Best Picture nomination for the 1968 Oscars, Dolittle’s been thrown about on-screen with middling success. Eddie Murphy had two goes with the character before inexplicably being morphed into a teenage female — Maya Dolittle — for a series of direct-to-video also-rans.

Downey certainly brings the character back in the right direction. But it’s probably going to be sometime down the road before Hollywood truly gets Dolittle right.