Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Dolittle: Animal Magnetism

Robert Downey and Poly in Dolittle.

Dolittle received punitive reviews when it showed up on Prime last year, but I decided to check it out recently because I’ve always been partial to the material – the Hugh Lofting series of books, which came out between 1920 and 1948, were among my childhood favorites – and the thought of casting Robert Downey as the quirky Victorian veterinarian who can speak the languages of his patients sounded irresistible. Downey is the third cinematic Dolittle. Rex Harrison played him in the paralytic 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle, which is now remembered only for the Oscar-winning song “Talk to the Animals.” (The fact that it was nominated for Best Picture, apparently just because 20th Century-Fox had squandered so much money on it, now seems perplexing, but in his essential book Pictures at a Revolution Mark Harris makes sense of it, uses the 1967 competition for the award as an emblem for the shift from the old Hollywood to the new Hollywood.) Eddie Murphy was the star of the 1998 movie of the same name, which was lamely plotted but the director, Betty Thomas, cleverly used the animals as an out-of-control vaudeville show. The idea of the Murphy version is that, learning of the doctor’s gift, animals show up at all hours to secure treatment for their ills (psychological as well as physical); he can’t tune them out, they never shut up, and their non-stop cacophony is often hilarious. So are the voice actors, like Chris Rock, Norm McDonald, Albert Brooks, John Leguizamo, Reni Santoni, Paul Reubens, Gilbert Gottfried, and Garry Shandling and Julie Kavner as a pair of squabbling pigeons with sex problems. And Murphy is a good sport:  he allows himself to be upstaged by every animal in the picture. (A sequel came out in 2001.)

Dolittle is messy and some of the gags don’t work, but I found it charming and funny; I can’t figure out exactly why my fellow critics jumped on it. The script by Dan Gregor, Doug Mand and the director, Stephen Gaghan, is infinitely cleverer than the 1998 edition, and it has an emotional core. It finds John Dolittle at a low ebb. The death of his beloved wife Lily has turned him into a recluse; he lives on a gated country estate with his most faithful animals, who long for him to embrace life once again. A determined, animal-loving local lad named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Callett) with a wounded squirrel who was his unintended victim manages to get the doctor to save the squirrel’s life and, enchanted by Dolittle’s techniques, applies to him as a vet-in-training. At the same time, Queen Victoria’s cousin Rose (Carmel Laniado) calls on the doctor to save the young queen (Jessie Buckley), who has been poisoned and is at death’s door. When he agrees, his bestiary turns the sickroom upside down and his unconventional medicine scandalizes the pompous Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) and the queen’s doctor, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheehan), an aristocrat of suffocating self-importance – note the umlaut in his name – who has considered Dolittle a rival since medical school. Nonetheless Dolittle and his entourage manage to set out on a voyage of adventure to track down the antidote to the drug that has laid the queen low.  To do so requires him to locate Lily’s notebook.  But it’s in the keeping of her father, the pirate king Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who holds Dolittle responsible for her fate. (She died in a shipwreck.) To complicate things further, the villainous Badgley sends Müdfly out with a crew to find the antidote first and make sure that Victoria never receives it.

Did the movie’s detractors pay any attention to what Sheehan, Broadbent and especially Banderas are doing in these supporting roles? This is music-hall caricature of a high order. And Downey is delightfully off-kilter. He’s not just playing around here; he’s giving an authentic performance that links John Dolittle’s misanthropy with the depth of his grief. The film makes it clear that the loss of the woman who drew him into the human world has caused him to retreat from it, and that without her he’s lost the conduit to it. He needs Tommy Stubbins and the energy of the animals, which transcends the divisions between beasts and people, to bring him back to it. Tommy’s enthusiasm operates as a reminder of his unique value and releases his wisdom, which he’s locked away behind the gates of his home since Lily’s death.

The voice actors include Emma Thompson as Poly, the parrot who is his closest companion and his toughest adviser; Tom Holland as Jip, his loyal dog; Ralph Fiennes as a neurotic, mother-obsessed tiger caged in Rassouli’s castle who feels Dolittle abandoned him before his analysis was complete; Frances de la Tour as the dragon who guards the garden where the antidote grows; Craig Robinson as the squirrel, Remi Malek as a gorilla, Octavia Spencer as a duck, Selena Gomez as a giraffe, Jason Mantzoukas as a dragonfly, Kumail Nanjiani as an ostrich, Marion Cotillard as a fox and John Cena as a polar bear. These actors’ vocal performances combine wit and feeling while the art department and visual effects wizards combine style, humor and beauty in the creation of the animals. Fiennes is the funniest, de la Tour the most affecting. Dolittle makes an emotional connection with the terrifying dragon when he discovers that she too is in mourning for a mate. Children should love this movie and it’s hard to believe that their parents won’t feel the same way.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.



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