The reviews for Dolittle are in — and, for the most part, critics aren't impressed.
The Universal Studios film is Robert Downey Jr.'s first big project since his retirement from playing Iron Man for Marvel Studios last year and comes from director Stephen Gaghan. Dolittle is an adaptation of the 1920s children's book by Hugh Lofting, Voyage of Doctor Dolittle.
Dolittle — which currently sits at a 17 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — is set in Victorian England and picks up seven years after Downey's Dolittle, an eccentric doctor who can communicate with animals, lost his wife. He has since isolated himself at his home, Dolittle Manor, with just animals to keep him company. But when the queen becomes sick, he goes on a voyage to a mythical island to find a cure.
Starring in live-action roles are Antonio Banderas, Jim Broadbent and Michael Sheen, while A-listers such as Octavia Spencer, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena and Marion Cotillard lend their voices to animated characters. Compared to its bright and starry cast, though, reviewers found the latest re-imagination of the literary classic to be rather dim.
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy wrote, "From the very first scene, it’s clear something is terribly off with this lavishly misbegotten attempt to re-popularize an animal-loaded literary franchise that was born exactly a century ago."
McCarthy went on to say that he felt Downey's performance was lacking. "There’s a recessive quality to Downey’s performance — odd coming from this normally irrepressible extrovert — that, from the outset, leaves the impression less of a realized character than of an actor feeling his way toward an eccentric figure that isn’t quite there yet," McCarthy wrote. "It never does gel."
McCarthy also called out Dolittle's pacing. "Along with the star’s vacant, vague performance, the desperately manic pacing doesn’t give Dolittle even a whisper of a chance of ever becoming what it aspires to be — charming, enchanting and appealing to children of all ages," wrote McCarthy. "How this mismatch of personnel both before and behind the camera was not immediately evident to all involved represents a mild mystery that will furrow a few brows for a nanosecond at the beginning of this new decade."
Newsday's Rafer Guzman seemed to agree with McCarthy, calling the film "elaborately staged but charmless." Guzman also took issue with Downey's portrayal of Dr. Dolittle, explaining, "As for Downey, his Dolittle is one weird creation — not in an inspired, Gene-Wilder-as-Willie-Wonka way, but in a baffling, Johnny-Depp-as-Mortdecai way. He's a bit of this, a bit of that: a fun-loving kook and surly recluse in a tie-dyed vest. For some reason, Downey has also made the character Welsh, a nationality that, to my American mind, conjures up absolutely nothing. Did Downey just want to have a challenging accent? And is that why all his lines seem to have been re-dubbed? He's the only actor in the film whose tone and volume never vary from a low, close mumble."
The Chicago Sun-Times' Richard Roeper went as far as to brand Dolittle "the first serious contender for Wasted Opportunity of the Decade." Roeper elaborated, "The adventures at sea and on the islands play out like low-rent, animal-centric scenes from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. By the time the doc endures massive dragon flatulence while performing emergency surgery on the fire-breathing creature, Dolittle has solidified its standing as a spectacularly terrible multi-vehicle pileup."
Roeper also criticized Downey's performance. "At times Downey’s eyes seem to glaze over with boredom as he 'interacts' with the VFX and SFX animals. Downey plays Dolittle as a Welshman — but it sounds as if he’s channeling Robin Williams’ accent from Mrs. Doubtfire," Roeper wrote. "I’m not kidding. He sounds a LOT like Mrs. Doubtfire."
The New York Post's Sara Stewart was also disappointed. "There’s got to be a moment, as an actor watches himself onscreen pulling bagpipes out of a CGI dragon’s rear end, that he thinks, 'Have I really fallen this far?'" Stewart quipped of Downey, later noting her surprise at Universal's decision to hire Gagham as Dolittle's director. "If you were brainstorming directors for a chipper children’s movie like this, would you come up with the director and screenwriter behind drug dramas Syriana and Traffic? Me neither, but here we are."
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr criticized the film's "nonsensically" written script. "Dolittle hops nonsensically from one sequence of peril to another, with little to no connective tissue; again, this won’t bother the youngest audiences, but their parents might want to bring a book," wrote Burr, who then gave props to Sheen and Banderas for their performances. "They should put it down whenever Michael Sheen shows up as a fatuous prat of a rival academic or Antonio Banderas commandeers the screen as King Rassouli, an island monarch whose existential weariness seems left over from his Oscar-nominated turn in Pain and Glory."
Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson saw Dolittle as an "unfunny misfire." Lawson explained, "Despite all its desperate trying, Dolittle is not a funny movie — sweet and engaging sometimes to be sure, but nowhere near a laugh-riot. At one point in the film, an orangutan with a British accent who can’t stop dancing shows up and I chuckled at him, but then he disappears from the movie as quickly as he arrived. Just a small example of the way this movie seems to have no sense of what’s playing well and what isn’t. Too bad. I’m thinking of you, dancing orangutan, wherever you are."
The Lamplight Review's Brent Hankins wrote about what he considered to be the film's lackluster sense of humor, which leans heavily on its CGI creatures. "Much of the animal-related humor is either anachronistic — an octopus who may have witnessed a crime refuses to answer questions, citing the motto 'snitches get stitches' — or scatological, such as a third-act sequence where the doctor is tasked with removing a number of large items from the rectal cavity of a giant creature to alleviate its stomach problems. Dolittle is the sort of film that believes a vicious tiger named Barry (Ralph Fiennes) getting kicked in the groin by a gorilla (Rami Malek) and exclaiming “Oh, my Barry berries!” is the height of humor. Moviegoers under the age of 10 might agree with this sentiment, but don’t expect Universal’s would-be epic to connect with anyone else."
The Guardian's Benjamin Lee first revisits the checkered history of the film's postproduction schedule, which included reshoots and missed release dates, noting that he "doesn't much care for the end product, but it's not as hideous as that potted history might suggest, an average film rather than an atrocious one, a minuscule yet meaningful victory for Universal, still licking its wounds after Cats." The critic goes on to give the opinion that the animals are "far less nightmarish" [than those in Cats], while the film is "less memorable." Speaking to the plot, which he describes in his review as "convoluted" and "silly," Lee wrote that he may have trouble remembering specific details by the end of the month. In concluding his take on the film, Lee said, "It's ultimately a miracle that despite the tortured production process, Dolittle can most generously be described as passable for young, undiscerning viewers."