Robert Downey Jr. is riding a wave after a stellar decade plus of Iron Man and he takes all of that goodwill and attempts to burn it down in a single weekend with Dolittle. As Downey Jr. also is an executive producer on Dolittle this has the stamp of a star vanity project gone awry. Sometimes it works as inconsequential fluff but mostly it is just awkward, a tonal mishmash of old timey and modern hipness with loud CGI animals as the plot careens from one set piece to the next. Considering the climax involves Dolittle pulling bagpipes out of a CGI dragon’s ass, it’s a telltale sign that along the way in development something went incredibly wrong.
The reclusive Dolittle (Downey Jr.) can talk to the animals until one day Tommy (Harry Collett) arrives looking to fix a squirrel Tommy accidentally shot. By a remarkable coincidence, a representative from Queen Victoria, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), shows up asking for Dolittle to heal the ill Queen. Somehow, this leads to Dolittle, his cadre of animals and Tommy going on an adventure to a mysterious island to find a magical elixir. Along the way they run into a dangerous pirate (Antonio Banderas) and are tailed by the Queen’s representative, Mudfly (Michael Sheen) who wants to stop Dolittle’s voyage because he’s evil or something. Hijinks ensue, there is a lot of hollering, and eventually they run into a dragon because it wouldn’t be a fantasy movie without a dragon showing up, apparently.
The film tries for comedy but it mostly whiffs. There’s a clip on YouTube of Downey Jr. auditioning the animals with bits from classic movies which is funnier than anything in the film itself. There is weird disconnect with the 19th Century setting and the chatty animals who are madcap, zany and extreme. They seem to be from a completely different time period as they keep using modern slang. One moment where the disconnect gets a laugh is when Dolittle asks a fish if he has seen anything suspicious and, with subtitles, the fish replies “Snitches get stiches”. There is also a funny gag when Dolittle asks a duck for forceps to perform surgery but the duck keeps trying to give him celery. There’s even a random scene where Dolittle is talking to bugs which becomes an iconic bit from The Godfather with a mobster bug saying Dolittle is asking for a favour “on the day of my daughter’s wedding”. That last one is just odd and only mildly amusing.
The CGI animal menagerie is voiced by famous and semi–famous actors which maybe is a way to make this movie seem like Downey Jr. is still hanging with high wattage stars like in the Avengers movies. Tom Holland voices a dog very perkily, Rami Malek is a nervous gorilla which lets him be loud instead of mopey as Malek usually is, and Emma Thompson’s parrot squawks exposition. Some of the voice actors have fun moments, like Jason Mantzoukas as a high–strung dragonfly or Craig Robinson as a squirrel that vows revenge. The humans fare worse, Banderas seems like a refugee from a Pirates of a Caribbean sequel mixed with family melodrama and Collett as Dolittle’s apprentice just sort of goes “wow”. One actor who does a decent job is Sheen as the snippy villain who is perpetually annoyed at Dolittle’s antics. To be fair, he isn’t wrong, Dolittle is annoying.
Tone is a huge problem. Even the trailer had an emo cover of “What a Wonderful World” with random shots of people being awed that Downey Jr. is Dolittle, like the audience is supposed to give a hoot. This extends to the film with Downey Jr. playing emotional tones in a movie that doesn’t earn it. Dolittle is in isolation is because he’s mourning his wife who died on an excursion to find a mysterious island which is an unneeded downer. He’s introduced in a crazy hobo beard and jabbering animal noises, which lets Downey Jr. be even more eccentric than usual. Every once in awhile, Dolittle will get incredibly bummed out and remind the audience that his wife is totally dead as his journey is supposed to give him emotional catharsis but it seems an exceptionally heavy a detour for what is supposed to be a wacky CGI animal enhanced adventure romp.
The accent he’s doing is just weird. And not only that, it sounds like it was redubbed the entire film as if they wanted to change the accent he did on set for something new. And there’s even a moment where Dolittle does some detective work like from Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes franchise. The film was co-written and directed by Stephen Gaghan who has mostly worked on dramatic crime thrillers and the wacky family CGI adventure comedy is out of his tonal wheelhouse. The movie underwent extensive reshoots under a different director and the final product jerks from maudlin to frantic.
Dolittle isn’t a car crash of a movie, but it is a waste of time, talent and money. This certainly isn’t going to be Downey Jr.’s post–Avengers moneymaking franchise that he can creatively lead as an executive producer. It is yet another unwanted remake of the dusty IP Doctor Dolittle where the jabbering animals trying to be “cool” never shut the hell up. V
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.,
Antonio Banderas and