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Dolittle, based on Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s stories, feels like two different movies. The first third embodies all the prickly, off-kilter charm an Anglophile’s heart could desire. It opens, as all English children’s stories should, in a wild wood hiding a mysterious, crumbling manor.
Dreamy-eyed village lad Stubbins (Harry Collett) can’t bring himself to follow in his family’s footsteps and fire upon forest creatures. His gentle heart gets a reward: an invitation from a talking parrot (Emma Thompson) to a secret animal sanctuary where he meets a pretty, young aristocrat; an array of furry, feathered, and scaled hosts; and the most eccentric man of science the 19th century—an era famed for eccentric men of science—ever produced: Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.).
All shipshape and Bristol fashion so far.
It’s when the animals start to speak that we sense the first whiff of danger—they all have inexplicably modern, American personalities. Still, even when his accent goes a bit wobbly, Downey Jr. offers such a pleasingly crusty old Welshman our concern is easy enough to brush off. As Dolittle, Stubbins, and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) set off for Buckingham Palace on a mission to save her majesty, we settle in for a feast of charming Victoriana.
And that’s when this sweet PG frolic becomes less Paddington and more South Park.
Every cheap, juvenile gag a lazy Hollywood screenwriter can be counted on to produce suddenly arrives to grate on parents’ nerves: crude jokes, puerile references to body parts, inane puns, cut-off expletives, and, finally, rhymes-with expletives.
We already had a loud, crass, Americanized version of the story with 1998’s Eddie Murphy vehicle. We didn’t need a new one with an old accent.