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365体育官网Having joined the unlikely crew of a ship heading for an island that never has been found, young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) is befriended by a frigophobic polar bear (named Yoshi) and an uncharacteristically meek mountain gorilla (Chee-Chee). Courtesy photo

Arts

‘Dolittle’: The doctor is way in

‘Dolittle’

3.5 stars

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Michael Sheen, Antonio Banderas, Emma Thompson, Harry Collett, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer and Jim Broadbent

Rating: PG, for no particular reason

Newest adaptation of this children’s classic is good-natured fun

By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic

Hollywood had a distressing habit, in the 1960s and early ’70s, of turning classic children’s books into musicals.

This lamentable trend started with 1964’s “Mary Poppins,” which — by becoming that year’s third most popular film — lit the fuse on what followed. Subsequent entries, most with positively dire songs, included 1968’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (as 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and — I positively shudder — 1973’s “Tom Sawyer.”

365体育官网Not to be left out, animated examples included 1966’s “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree,” 1970’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” and 1973’s “Charlotte’s Web.”

Every one of which, without exception, destroyed the gentle tone so carefully wrought by the authors of the respective books. A few of these films may have been popular — most were just this side of awful — but many loyal young readers felt utterly betrayed, with ample justification. Hollywood didn’t “get” children’s literature any better than it understood the decade’s counter-culture revolution.

All of which brings us to 1967’s “Doctor Dolittle,” arguably one of the worst offenders. Rex Harrison may have been suitably refined and British in the title role — albeit much too old — but the film is a bloated, over-produced train wreck that pleased nobody, but nonetheless pulled nine Academy Award nominations (including, the mind doth boggle, Best Picture) … only because 20th Century Fox bought votes by serving fancy buffet dinners, cocktails and bottomless champagne at all pre-nomination screenings.

(The ploy succeeded, if only partially. The film won two Oscars — Special Effects and Song — the latter robbing Bacharach/David’s vastly superior “The Look of Love” from its rightful statuette.)

Harrison turned British author Hugh Lofting’s quiet bachelor veterinarian, who operates a clinic in the small village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, into a creaky song-and-dance man. Eddie Murphy made him a wise-cracking animal-rights advocate in a 1998 comedy that borrowed little but the title and premise of Lofting’s books.

Robert Downey Jr., in turn, has turned Dolittle into a superhero.

Director/co-scripter Stephen Gaghan’s “Dolittle” has its charms, and it’s always nice to see a family-friendly fantasy that wears its mild PG rating with pride. The film is faithful to the character’s mid-19th century roots, with an ambiance impeccably replicated by production designer Dominic Watkins and costume designer Jenny Beavan.

Modern CGI technology also allowed effects supervisors Nicolas Aithadi and John Dykstra to imbue Dolittle’s many animal friends not only with speech but also all manner of delightful personalities. (Given this application of cinematic magic, though, I’m surprised we never get to meet the two-headed pushmi-pullyu.)

365体育官网No question: The result is a lot of fun.

But Gaghan and his gaggle of co-writers — Dan Gregor, Doug Mand and Thomas Shepherd — don’t even try for Lofting’s quaint tone, and their story is more re-imagining than adaptation. Editor Craig Alpert’s rat-a-tat pacing, and this adventure’s constant dollops of peril, have more in common with the current “Jumanji” series.

Downey makes Dolittle a Welsh gadget inventor and animal lover who, with his wife Lily — as revealed in a brief animated prolog — has traveled the world to turn their massive estate into a wild animal park laden with all manner of exotic critters. But when Lily fails to return from another routine voyage, after having drowned at sea, Dolittle closes the park and becomes a recluse who refuses all contact with other people.

Until, one day, his walls are breached by two adolescents: Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, playing a character lifted from Lofting), needing help to save a squirrel he unintentionally shot; and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), an emissary from the equally young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who is gravely ill with a mysterious ailment, and pins her hopes on Dolittle’s wide-ranging medical knowledge.

365体育官网Dolittle cannot refuse the queen, and — much to the Royal Court’s consternation — shows up with half-a-dozen of his animal friends. After a brief examination, he sadly announces that the queen’s condition is terminal; her only hope is a cure that’s never been tested, requiring the fruit from an “Eden Tree” that’s never been seen … which grows solely on an island that’s never been found.

365体育官网And — wouldn’t you know it — Lily was searching for that very island when she perished.

365体育官网Stuff and nonsense, insists royal physician Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), a former school peer of Dolittle’s at Edinburgh, who has been insufferably jealous of his more flamboyant colleague ever since. Indeed, Müdfly is more than envious; he’s clearly up to no good, and subsequently becomes the villain of this increasingly chaotic piece. Sheen plays him to gleeful, Snidely Whiplash perfection; one wishes he had a mustache to twirl.

The droll, snarky exchanges between Downey and Sheen notwithstanding, most of the film’s comedy emanates from the various critters, all voiced by familiar stars.

365体育官网Emma Thompson’s Polynesia, a parrot who is Dolittle’s oldest friend and most trusted confidante, also narrates this saga. She’s wise and practical, qualities that radiate from Thompson’s every spoken syllable. Poly also champions young Tommy’s desire to become Dolittle’s apprentice: a request the doctor greets with one of Downey’s signature dubious glances.

365体育官网Yoshi (voiced by John Cena) is a polar bear who hates the cold; nervously placid mountain gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek) prefers chess and word games to physical activities such as boxing and wrestling. Insecure ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani) resents being Dolittle’s trusty steed; ditzy duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), pressed into service as Dolittle’s nurse, forever confuses scalpels with stalks of celery.

Some of the relentless, good-natured verbal byplay succeeds; the mild rivalry between Yoshi and Plimpton is a hoot.

Other performances are rather strained, as with Craig Robinson’s way365体育官网 over-the-top handling of the aforementioned injured squirrel, Kevin. A little of him goes a long way, and we get far more than a little. The same is true of Jason Mantzoukas’ equally tiresome performance as an insufferably verbal dragonfly.

365体育官网Selena Gomez appears briefly as a giraffe; Marion Cotillard as a fox; and Ralph Fiennes as a Bengal tiger with complex mommy issues.

365体育官网Getting back to homo sapiens, Antonio Banderas channels his delightfully roguish Puss in Boots personality as the sinister Rassouli, fearsome king of the pirate Port of Monteverde. He and Dolittle have an unpleasant history; circumstances naturally will prompt a reluctant reunion.

Collett is an appropriately eager young acolyte, and it’s a shame we don’t see more of Laniado’s Lady Rose; she’s charm and grace personified.

The action is propelled by Danny Elfman’s appropriately larkish and flamboyant score (with nary a song to be heard).

365体育官网I worry that this film won’t find its target audience, having been dumped unceremoniously in the early January doldrums that always follow the holiday season’s Oscar bait. That’s a shame; although nothing special, this “Dolittle” is quite entertaining.

Even if Lofting’s fans, alas, still await a faithful adaptation.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at vigel-vea.com.

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