Doctor Dolittle can talk to animals, but they have nothing worth saying to each other in this impressively unfunny and nonsensical cinematic calamity.
Dolittle is a film so brazenly incompetent and incoherent that salvaging it would take enough of a miracle to make conversing with animals seem like an everyday thing. And indeed it is an everyday thing for Doctor Dolittle, an eccentric physician invented by Hugh Lofting in the 20s and 30s through a series of beloved children’s books that have been adapted to no real success a couple of times since. Dolittle has been played by Rex Harrison, Eddie Murphy, and now Robert Downey Jr., here sporting an indecipherable Welsh lilt that is distractingly funny the first time you hear it and indescribably grating every time after that.
That accent is the first thing you notice about Downey’s performance, but far from the last. Considering this was a passion project that he apparently labored to get off the ground, it’s perplexing that he seemingly makes every effort to mock it, finding exactly the wrong tone and demeanor for every scene. I’d have paid — though admittedly not much — to have been on set for the very first take, which was presumably followed by a confused hush and a room full of incredulous double-takes. Director Stephen Gaghan (who also, unfortunately for him, co-wrote the screenplay) must have wondered if he was going to keep the shtick up for the entire film, the same way I imagine all directors do when tasked with steering a wacky actor through a role that encourages their various excesses. Downey, to his credit, doesn’t keep the same thing up throughout, but only because he randomly veers into other, equally befuddling territory without warning.
Anyway, plot, not that it matters. This version of Dolittle hews closer to the source, seeing the doctor’s beloved wife die at sea while on a mysterious voyage and the subsequent grief compel him to live a hermit life in his sprawling, unkempt animal sanctuary surrounded by a menagerie of stars including Emma Thompson, John Cena, Rami Malek, Tom Holland, and Selena Gomez. Having grown a fearsome Old Testament beard and faintly horrifying sideburns he’s compelled back into action by the random arrival of both Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who wants him to save the life of a deathly ill Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), and Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young boy from a hunting family who accidentally shot a squirrel and wants Dolittle to save it. These two characters have nothing at all to do with each other, which can be said about many of the events that follow, one assumes because the film had a now-famously calamitous production and was reshot and rewritten from the ground up multiple times, cycling through several directors, scripts, and versions of visual effects, which is probably why the style, tone, and focus of the whole endeavor changes every couple of minutes and why all of the characters, including the animals, whose CGI lips often don’t match the voice acting, seem to be reading several versions of the same script from a locked room somewhere off-set — which is precisely what they were doing.
Nevertheless, Dolittle agrees to help the queen, whose illness is apparently mysterious but is quite clearly the result of poisoning, and takes on Tommy as an apprentice for a voyage to a fabled island where some kind of magical fruit can save the queen’s life and where, wouldn’t you know it, the good doctor’s lady wife was heading when she disappeared.
On some level, you can see why all this would appeal, even if the original stories have long since faded from the public consciousness and every attempt to adapt the property has had either nothing to do with the original material or been awful. It’s Iron Man on a big boat full of celebrity animals, getting into slapstick shenanigans sprung to life by an absurd and undeserved mega-budget. But that only makes the final product that much more embarrassing. It’s bad in a way unique to films that never aspired to much in the first place but were nonetheless plagued by unforeseen challenges and ad-hoc solutions. No element of it makes sense when held up against another; everything from the way it looks and sounds to the way it lurches haphazardly from one set-piece or idea to the next is ill-fitting, a Frankenstein’s monster of repurposed visual effects and disinterested line readings. It isn’t even charming in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Rarely is a movie so bereft of actual human thought, emotion and presence, and I say that as someone who saw last year’s live-action remake of The Lion King.
It brings me no pleasure to ridicule what quite obviously only ever aspired to be a big-budget family-friendly crowdpleaser, but it brought me no pleasure to sit through it either. I’ve conceded half a star for the fact it’s basically well-intentioned and inoffensive, but that’s the nicest I’ll be about this charmless cacophony of unfunny cinematic slurry. Hopefully the next time Dolittle talks, nobody listens.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.