Where does Robert Downey Jr.’s “Dolittle” accent come from? Is it Wales, the West Indies or some special place inside this unique actor’s mind?
I don’t really care, because Downey has earned the right to get crazy. If you’d been locked inside the gilded cage of the Marvel movies for more than a decade, wouldn’t you want to break out a little bit?
And Downey is such a rare bird, after all. Here he is in “Dolittle,” playing the famed character from Hugh Lofting’s books, the physician who can talk to the animals — grunt and squeak and squawk to the animals, as the Oscar-winning song from the 1967 “Doctor Dolittle” put it.
That film was a legendary bomb, and there had been rumors that this “Dolittle” might be running into problems itself (with extensive re-shoots after an initial cut laid an egg with preview audiences). But it’s no stiff: hyperactive and jokey, large-scaled but swift-moving, the film perks along enough to get genuinely bizarre at times. It’s closer to the original books than Eddie Murphy’s “Dr. Dolittle” movies, but not by much.
Downey’s Dolittle is an anti-social grump, locked away with his animal pals (we hear their dialogue, because he can understand it). Grieving a wife lost to far-flung adventure, John Dolittle is brought back to society because the Queen of England (Jessie Buckley, from “Wild Rose”) is on her deathbed and needs his assistance.
The only cure for Her Royal Highness is for Dolittle to journey across the seas to a fabled island where a magical healing plant grows. Well, of course. The doctor takes along his animals and an adolescent apprentice, Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett).
The animals are digitally created, and given voice by a bright cast that includes Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Tom Holland and Octavia Spencer. Thankfully, there’s no Pushmi-pullyu, that terrifying two-bodied creature from Lofting’s stories.
Director Stephen Gaghan (who made the extremely serious “Syriana”) keeps this moving along at a highly caffeinated pace. The wisecracks fly and the story zips from one barely-comprehensible event to the next. You’ll laugh, but you won’t feel much, let alone register what exactly is happening.
Some of the laughs come from the film’s villain, the nefarious Dr. Mudfly (Michael Sheen plays the role with a satanic beard and campy energy). Sheen can get a lot out of a line like “I shall continue to leech!” when describing his medical treatment for the queen.
Antonio Banderas turns up as an exotic island lord, a typical example of this movie’s tendency to hire talent way, way above the material. Why do you get Oscar winner Marion Cotillard to voice a half-dozen lines as a talking fox? I don’t know, but there must be some reason this movie cost a rumored $175 million.
Downey’s performance is the kind of eccentric turn that someone with a lot of Marvel money can afford to indulge in. Buried in steampunk costumes and matted hair, Downey speaks with a voice that sounds like Anthony Hopkins doing a bad Richard Harris imitation.
This is fine, because you don’t go to a Downey movie to see him act like a normal. But too often Downey is lost in the movie’s fur and feathers, sidelined by a group of hammy computer-generated animals and the overall frantic pace.
It’s geared for children, and “Dolittle” may land just fine with that demographic, while adults should appreciate the Monty Pythonesque moments. It’s not another “Cats,” in other words. But when a movie’s high point is a scene of Downey extracting an intestinal obstruction from a constipated dragon, all bets are off.
“Dolittle” (2½ stars)
A frantic account of the famed Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), who can talk to the animals. The film is just weird enough to keep itself going, and Downey — buried in steampunk costumes and a bizarre accent all his own — is always watchable, even if he gets sidelined here by all the computer-generated animals. With Michael Sheen.
Rating: PG, for violence
Opening Friday: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plaza