Dr. Dolittle, in the latest film to bear his name, lives with quite a menagerie. He has on his premises a gorilla, a polar bear, a giraffe, an ostrich, a parrot, and many other furred and feathered friends. One thing he doesn’t have is a white elephant; that would be Dolittle itself, an overproduced, charmless, tone-deaf misfire that squanders the efforts of many very talented craftspeople and an ensemble of seriously overqualified actors.
That’s a particular shame given that this was reportedly a passion project for star Robert Downey Jr. and was directed and co-written by Stephen Gaghan, who deservedly won an Oscar for his Traffic screenplay and was nominated for writing Syriana. But delivering a rollicking, Pirates of the Caribbean-style VFX-adventure film was clearly not in his wheelhouse, and Dolittle is arriving in theaters following a protracted postproduction involving significant rewrites by Craig McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and reshoots overseen by Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Several editors and “additional editors” are credited, yet the movie plays like it was thrown together in haste, and to absolutely assure that none of the kids in the audience are bored. The pacing is best described as chaotic from very early on and never lets up through the rest of the running time, and narration is sometimes employed to paper over plot transitions and condensed versions of sequences that must not have cut together well—but then they couldn’t have been any worse than the rest of the movie.
Dolittle’s desire to ride in the Pirate franchise’s wake is evident not just from its seafaring scenario, but also the dissolute characterization of its hero. An animated prologue gives us the backstory: Thanks to his ability to talk to animals, Dr. John Dolittle traveled the world helping species in need of medicine or rescue, along the way meeting the great love of his life, an intrepid explorer named Lily. The longer Dolittle goes on, the more you wish that’s the story the movie told, perhaps in the eye-pleasing animation style utilized in that intro. But no, modern trends dictate that a reimagining of a kid-lit favorite (in this case, one that doesn’t credit its source, the classic books by Hugh Lofting) must be a redemption story. And so we first meet Dolittle in live action years after he has lost Lily to a shipwreck and thus any zest for living, having shut the rest of the world out from his now overgrown estate, now a messy, shaggy shadow of his former self whom Downey voices with an accent that sometimes suggests he’s doing a Liam Neeson impression.
Only a life-or-death mission can restore the initially reluctant Dolittle to his old vigor and enthusiasm, and it involves setting sail to retrieve the fruit of the faraway Eden Tree, which can save the life of the ailing, bedridden Queen Victoria (a thankless role for Jessie Buckley, so luminous in last year’s insanely undercelebrated Wild Rose). Yet any Victorian-era veneer is quickly shattered when modern vernacular and wisecracks issue forth from the endlessly chattering animals. With a voice cast that includes Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Ralph Fiennes, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Selena Gomez, and Marion Cotillard—who gets maybe five lines, tops—you’d think they’d be given fresher and funnier things to say than the limp banalities (several variations on “This is not good!”, etc.) and less-than-sparkling personalities they’ve been given to perform. Never mind that the CGI with which they’ve all been rendered, however detailed it may be, doesn’t convince us we’re watching flesh-and-blood beasts; there’s just little warmth or appeal to them as characters, and having them frequently discourse about parent-based neuroses is an odd choice for a movie aimed at families.
Similarly, a roster of top-of-the-line behind-the-scenes talent with heavy-duty fantasy résumés was assembled, including two Oscar winners—cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and costume designer Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road)—and the great Danny Elfman on the music. Yet it’s all for naught, since Dolittle is incapable of paying attention to anything and never develops any sense of awe and adventure. (From the opening strains of Elfman’s score, you can hear him trying out different themes, as if unsure which one might work for the movie to follow.) Seemingly left to his own devices, Downey can’t turn Dolittle into someone worth rooting for or laughing with, and his co-stars are similarly ill-served. They include Michael Sheen, way overdoing it as an annoying jerk who passes for the film’s villain; Antonio Banderas, wearing Joker eye makeup as Lily’s father, who’s none too happy when Dolittle comes back into his life; and young Harry Collett and Carmel Laniado as a wannabe Dolittle apprentice and a member of the royal court who are introduced as an appeal to the target audience, and then forgotten for long stretches of time.
The 1967 Doctor Dolittle was also a troubled, costly failure, so you could say this one is following in a classic tradition, of sorts. Mostly, Dolittle is further proof (as if any more were needed) that a recognizable IP and a budget well north of $100 million are no guarantee of a film anyone would want to sit through. As I left the screening, a woman attempting to put a positive spin on the experience said, “Well, it’s a good movie for the kids.” So if you feel that the right choice for your little ones is a film that (SPOILER ALERT?) climaxes with its protagonist pulling armor and other human detritus out of a dragon’s asshole, have at it.