Robert Downey Jr. is unwatchable in this CG-heavy reimagining that quickly comes to feel like mild torture
Plagued with production problems and a victim of numerous reshoots, here is a film that has no idea of what it wants to be, or how, resorting instead to half-arsed regurgitations of blockbusters that are no longer in vogue. Dolittle, which stars Robert Downey Jr. in what feels like a major career fumble, runs at a mere 90 minutes without credits, but the incoherent hokum that makes up most of its runtime means this dated excuse for an adventure drags on and on ad infinitum. As badly-animated animals spew out one-liners that feel transposed from cringey ’90s comedies, you’re eventually left with no choice but to zone out completely. Call it an act of self-preservation.
Most surprising is that this mess comes from Stephen Gaghan, the usually thoughtful director of films like Traffic and Syriana, whose sensibility feels connected to the material in approximately zero ways. How he came to helm this project is basically mind-boggling: this is one of those anonymous blockbusters where it is impossible to tell who was behind the camera at any given moment, like something a sentient movie studio took up the task of directing itself.
The somewhat appealing concept of a doctor who can talk to animals has been wildly overcooked and reconfigured here as an epic, globe-spanning fantasy-adventure. Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), unkempt and slightly mad, is living a quiet existence in a remote animal sanctuary after the unfortunate passing of his wife. Hassled by a young man-cum-wannabe apprentice named Stubbins (Harry Collett in an abysmally amateurish performance), Dolittle is quickly summoned to Buckingham Palace where he finds Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) is on death’s door. The only thing that can save her, Dolittle explains, is the fruit from something called the “Eden Tree.” It is mumbo jumbo of the highest order.
Do little is right. How apt it is, then, that Downey Jr. resorts to the bare minimum, mumbling his way through every line reading with a whispered, tic-heavy intonation made agonising by way of one of the most ludicrously ill-judged film accents in recent memory. Attempting to sound Welsh, it’s the sort of accent that poisons every frame of this CG-addled, green screen belly flop. The question of how one falls quite so far from an epic run on the Avengers movies to something like Dolittle is this film’s most fascinating take home.
Impatient to get itself over with right from the start, a paper-thin script moves us from one irritating set-piece to the next, whilst the plot – a pointless fetch quest in all but name – consists of the Doctor and his band of animal sidekicks, voiced by everyone from Tom Holland to Rami Malek, being captured and then escaping just in the nick of time, over and over again. There is no peril; no danger; no chemistry. At points Emma Thompson’s parrot, Poly, simply narrates what we can already see playing out on screen, as though the film feels the need to remind us that stuff is actually happening, look!
Only Michael Sheen, an actual Welshman cast here as the film’s English villain, seems to understand the predicament he’s found himself in, and so ups the scenery-chewing to giddy heights so that he might at least entertain us. No one else has any such luck. The majority of celebrity voices don’t fit the animal mouths they’re paired with. Jessie Buckley, dealt yet another role unworthy of her talents, is given a handful of lines whilst confined to a bed for the entire film (you can afford to be pickier, Jessie!). At least she was permitted to lie down for all her days on set. You might feel a similar urge to lay flat after seeing Dolittle, if only to comprehend how so much time and money could be wasted on such a calamitous dud.Where to watch