A Film and TV Review by Tim Riley

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DOLITTLE” (Rated PG) January is typically a dumping ground for the release of films that may have limited commercial prospects, and one has to wonder if that’s the case for family-friendly “Dolittle,” which reportedly had a huge budget.

The lineage of the “Dolittle” franchise goes back to 1967 when Rex Harrison played the titular character of the reclusive doctor who could communicate with animals, followed more than 30 years later with Eddie Murphy in the role.

Robert Downey, Jr., appearing irascible and mismatched for the role, is the famed Dr. Dolittle and veterinarian of Queen Victoria’s England, living as a hermit behind the high walls of his large country estate after the death of his beloved wife who perished on a sea voyage.

Looking unkempt with his straggly beard and rumpled clothes, the withdrawn doctor lives with a menagerie of talking animals, including the parrot Polynesia (Emma Thompson) who serves as the doctor’s reliable conscience and anxious chess-playing gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek).

Other oddball creatures in Dolittle’s orbit are the bird-brained duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer) and the bickering duo of the neurotic ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani) and the sun worshipper polar bear Yoshi (John Cena).

The quietude of Dolittle’s estate is cracked when Tom Stubbins (Harry Collett), an animal-loving young lad shows up seeking help for an injured squirrel he accidentally shot.

Coincidentally, at the same time, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), a young attendant to Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), arrives with an urgent request from Buckingham Palace for the doctor’s help to save the young monarch from a mysterious illness.

Apparently, the cure for the queen’s malady is the fruit of the Eden Tree, which can only be located in a journal hidden on the island of Monteverde, which is ruled by the Pirate King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), the father of Dolittle’s late wife.

Retrieving the journal and the antidote requires setting sail with the menagerie, along with Stubbins as a stowaway, on a journey where the doctor is pursued by his nemesis, Dr. Mudfly (Michael Sheen), the queen’s deceitful personal physician.

The doctor’s mission is complicated not only by a hostile British Navy vessel commanded by Mudfly but the ill-tempered King Rassouli, who blames him for his daughter’s death and wants to feed Dolittle to a tiger named Barry (Ralph Fiennes).

Back in England, Queen Victoria may succumb to her illness if Dolittle fails, and palace intrigue materializes with Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent) standing in the wings eager to take the crown.

A story in the Hollywood Reporter recalls how the 1967 “Doctor Dolittle” bombed so badly that it almost bankrupted the 20th Century Fox studio. The same won’t happen to Universal Studios, but “Dolittle” may have trouble recouping its investment.

The humor of the talking animals and high seas escapades may not add up for excitement for everyone, but “Dolittle” is passable entertainment for children at a time when so few family-oriented options are available.

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