Sometimes you just want more for someone, even if they are rich, famous, and probably doing fine. Today, that person is Robert Downey Jr., star of Dolittle, in which he plays an eccentric doctor who can talk to garish, computer-generated animals. Dolittle is Downey’s first big feature film after retiring from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yet he exhibits none of the trademark charisma audiences might hope for after ten years of Tony Stark (and a few years as a pretty fun Sherlock Holmes).
Like a good fairy tale, the movie delivers Doctor Dolittle’s backstory via storybook illustrations: how John Dolittle and his wife devoted their lives to helping animals, could speak their languages, and how her death during a voyage at sea caused him to retreat from the world, becoming a hermit in his manor / nature preserve. He’s forced to abandon his agoraphobic lifestyle when two children intrude to tell him the Queen of England is sick, and if she dies, the successor to the throne has plans to take Dolittle’s estate from both him and the animals he safeguards.
It’s perfectly inoffensive stuff, until Robert Downey Jr. opens his mouth and starts speaking with a bizarre Welsh accent, one that you’ll refuse to accept for about a third of the movie and yet somehow he just keeps doing it. It’s a performance that’s a bummer in more ways than one. Downey Jr. has excellent manic energy that makes him well-suited to playing weirdos and misanthropes, and plenty of folks are probably hoping to see him loosen up a little post-Marvel. Unfortunately, that’s very hard to do when you barely share the screen with another human being.
This is where it helps to remember that Dolittle is a very expensive, high-profile kids’ movie, and that these days it’s quite rare to get such an expensive failure in this realm. The movie is mostly a vehicle for talking animals, and like any movie with talking animals, the menagerie talks too much. Some of this is mitigated by the fact that their voices are recognizable — Kumail Nanjiani voices a stubborn ostrich, Jason Mantzoukas plays a very annoying dragonfly — but the movie is also aggressively unfunny. The biggest laughs come from surprise at completely bizarre swings: a barely euphemistic dick joke; goofs about divorce and abortion (the ostrich’s dad says he “should’ve been an omelet”); and a bizarre dragon colonic, where Dolittle reaches into the giant lizard’s (obscured) rectum to pull out bagpipes and a set of armor.
The best stuff is from human actors who briefly appear in somewhat villainous roles. Antonio Banderas plays the king of a foreign land with a bone to pick with Dolittle, and Michael Sheen is the doctor’s longtime rival. Both actors are no strangers to being the best part of whatever they’re in, and they continue the streak here.
Unfortunately, this movie was a disaster before the cameras even started rolling. It was initially written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, a filmmaker mostly known for serious adult dramas like Syriana. Dolittle — then called The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, much like the classic novel it’s based on — was retooled by two different filmmakers with more family-friendly bona fides, a process that works for some big-budget films, but absolutely did not help this one. It’s a mess.
Dolittle is repeating history. The original 1967 Doctor Dolittle was a legendary flop that was also a notoriously troubled production, a bizarre role for its star Rex Harrison to choose and a questionable choice for all involved parties. Dolittle is much the same, a big disaster on a scale that’s rarely seen — although this time it’s not because movies are rarely this expensive. It’s because they’re often too expensive to really be a complete failure. These days, money doesn’t buy quality, but it often does buy competence. Just not all of the time.
I do not regret my time spent with Dolittle. No one, as my editor reminded me, made me see it. This was entirely my decision. I do, however, feel preemptive regret on behalf of others, namely the parents who will be made to see Dolittle for what’s likely to be a total of 87 times come December. The movie is dreck made just acceptable enough for children with still-developing frontal lobes, one that would bore most adults to tears if it didn’t stop to do things like give a dragon a colonic. I will think a lot about the Monday night I spent watching it for another two weeks, and then I will likely forget it ever happened.