Movie Review: 'Doolittle'

Eccentric doctor talks to animals and travels to a faraway island in search of a mysterious plant-based cure for Queen Victoria.
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent,) Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen,) Tommy ((Harry Collett) and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) watch as Dr. Dolittle talks to Jip the dog (Tom Holland) about the antidote to save dying Queen Victoria.

“Doolittle” is based on Hugh Lofting's Newbery Prize-winning 1922 novel “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle.“ It’s also a reboot of movie adaptations from 1967 and 1998, with some of the same animal characters, yet it’s a completely different story. The current movie is about eccentric doctor who talks to animals and travels to a faraway island in search of a mysterious plant-based cure for Queen Victoria. This is an entertaining and suspenseful story that unfolds with fun, humor and adventure, although some aspects of the film may frighten sensitive children. 

The Story

The film begins the backstory of Dr. John Doolittle (Robert Downey, Jr.) as told by Polly the parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson.) Dr. Doolittle is a distinguished medical doctor and veterinarian in Victorian England with the unique ability to communicate with animals. Incredibly, Dr Doolittle can talk with any animal that he encounters – be it a duck, dog, baboon, giraffe, polar bear, parrot or octopus. He travels the world with his beloved wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak,) finding abandoned or injured animals and bringing them to their sanctuary. The Doolittles are different from the rest of society in that they refuse to use animals as “possessions, food or sport.” When Lily passes away unexpectedly, her husband becomes so distraught that he stops practicing medicine. Dr. Doolittle lives in a lavish mansion that was gifted him by the Queen Victoria. However, now that his wife has passed away, Doolittle turns his home into an indoor zoo, and it’s pure pandemonium with animals running through the house. 

Meanwhile, a young boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) is hunting with his uncle and cousin. Tommy doesn’t have the heart to hunt or kill animals. Somehow, his gun misfires and he accidentally shoots a squirrel named Kevin (voiced by Craig Robinson.) Tommy’s uncle gives him a knife and encourages him to put the squirrel out of it’s misery. But Tommy just can’t do it. Instead, he takes the injured squirrel to Dr. Dolittle’s sanctuary. Along the way, Tommy meets a young girl named Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) who is sent by Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) to talk to Dr. Doolittle about an urgent matter. 

When Tommy and Lady Rose arrive at Dolittle's Manor, the doctor is playing chess with talking mice, Chee-Chee the gorilla (Rami Malek,) Dab-Dab the duck (Octavia Spencer), and Jip the dog (Tom Holland.)  The doorbells rings, and the doctor tells Chee-Chee the gorilla to answer the door. The visitors are Tommy and Lady Rose, and they’ve brought along Kevin the injured squirrel, hoping that Dr. Doolittle can help him. Also, Lady Rose tells Dr. Dolittle that Queen Victoria has summoned him to Buckingham Palace for urgent business. Dr. Dolittle helps Kevin the squirrel recover but refuses to leave his home. Eventually, Dolittle changes his mind, cleans himself up and heads out to visit the queen, along with his animal entourage. 

Upon arrival at Buckingham Palace, Dr. Doolittle encounters his old rival from medical school, Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen) who is there to care for the queen. Dolittle and his animals enter the queen’s quarters, and find her sick in bed, groggy and barely hanging on to life. In a bizarre change of events, Dr Doolittle puts his head underwater in the queen’s aquarium, so that he can to talk to her pet octopus. The octopus tells Dr Doolittle that the queen was poisoned with a deadly nightshade serum. The only cure is the Eden Fruit, which is available on a faraway island. Now Dolittle makes it his mission to find the Eden Fruit, and bring it back to Buckingham Palace in order to save the queen. However, Doolittle must act quickly, and return before to Britain before the solar eclipse occurs, at which point the queen will perish.

What Parents Should Know

“Doolittle” is an entertaining family film that’s suitable for children in elementary school as well as middle schoolers and teenagers. Parents and grandparents will see things in the story that youngsters may overlook—such as the grief we may experience when a loved one passes away. There is some sadness in the movie (when Lily Doolittle dies at sea) but there’s a greater message of overcoming loss and abandonment by working together. 

Some aspects of this movie may frighten children. There is danger, peril and violence, with characters using guns, knives, cannons, and explosives. It’s unsettling when Dr. Doolittle is captured and thrown into a dark prison cell. A tiger is released into Dolittle's cell, who intends to kill and eat him. The situation becomes less threatening, however, as the tiger talks in his sleep about cuddling with his mommy. 

There is a scary villain with dark gunpowder smears on his face. Some animals fight each other and appear to be wounded. Queen Victoria is betrayed and poisoned, a concept which may give some children nightmares. Sensitive children might also be frightened by a fire-spewing dragon with glowing red eyes. It turns out the dragon has a stomach infection and Dr. Doolittle performs an emergency extraction. He pulls things out of the dragon’s rear end (I won’t tell you what it is, but it turns out being funny and cartoonish—perhaps a reminder to kids not to take the story too seriously.) 

Final Take

What I liked best about "Doolittle" was the doctor's quirky and vunerable connection to the animals. It was crazy funny and brought a smile to my face. I also liked the subplot of young Tommy, who eventually learns to empathize and talk to animals, and finds his place in this world, just like the good doctor does. Lady Rose brings grace and sophistication to the story, and adds some "girl power" an otherwise mostly male cast. If you're an animal lover like I am, you'll probably like this movie.