'Dolittle': Film Review

Is there a doctor in the house?
1/17/2020

Robert Downey Jr. stars in an effects-heavy adaptation of the beloved animal-filled literary franchise.

No doctor can cure what ails this Dolittle. From the very first scene, it’s clear something is terribly off with this lavishly misbegotten attempt to repopularize an animal-loaded literary franchise that was born exactly a century ago. The oddly diffident star and executive producer Robert Downey Jr. never finds the power-supplying third rail needed to energize a tale that fails to make a real case for being reinterpreted; you can practically hear little kids whining, “Mommy, Daddy, can we go now?”

On the heels of Cats, this is all Universal needed, but at least the studio will now know better than to greenlight any further critter-centric star musicals for the time being.

Built upon a theme that may energize British monarchists in their desperate time of need, Dolittle is propelled by the urgency to save the life of a very young Queen Victoria, which would place the action in the mid-19th century. Not that the good doctor is seriously restricted by corporeal realities that bridle the rest of humankind; the addled widower enjoys the unique talent of being able to speak with the animals that populate his vast country estate, just as they can do with him.

The long first act is mostly devoted to detailing these inter-species communication skills, but it becomes clear almost at once that the delicate charm and humor meant to result from these interactions remain far from achieved. Despite the great exertions clearly made to render Dolittle’s menagerie in visually credible ways, the key foundational scenes feel both obligatory and subdued. 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. It never does gel. 

All the same, this mangy Dolittle and his well-spoken brood eventually embark on their long voyage across the world to find a cure for the ailing young monarch. This entails, of course, the usual cocktail of special effects and sweeping visuals, but little of the intended thrill and joy of an epic journey spills over to even slightly intoxicate the viewer. Along with the gradual creeping feeling that Downey is not really enjoying the character he’s playing — his Dolittle simply isn’t much fun to be around — is the sense that director Stephen Gaghan is irreparably ill-suited to this material. On the basis of his two outstanding achievements — the script for Traffic and writing and directing Syriana — Gaghan’s natural talent lies with fierce and timely drama, not whimsy on the order of what is required here.

Indeed, the director seems well out of his element with looney birds, talking gorillas and such, not to mention the finer points of the British Empire at its zenith. 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. 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.

In any event, Dolittle and company finally make it to the far corner of the world where resides King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), the father of the doctor’s late wife, who perished in a wreck. Some cartoon villainy is provided by Michael Sheen as Dr. Blair Mudfly, but this is a film that just very expensively sits there onscreen with nothing ever seeming even remotely at stake. It has no weight or substance and delivers no impact of any kind.

It virtually goes without saying that the technical work is impeccable and flawless; if only as much meticulous work had gone into the storytelling and script. Anyone seeking some genuine amusement could do worse than to read the chapter in director Richard Fleischer's memoir, Just Tell Me When to Cry, on the making of the equally catastrophic Lofting adaptation, Fox's 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle; it's one of the funniest accounts of the making of any movie. That fiasco, which nearly sank 20th Century Fox, is a strong contender for worst film ever nominated for a best picture Oscar. Eddie Murphy had better luck with his comedians-laden 1998 version, which was followed by a sequel. Don’t expect that to happen this time around.

Production companies: Roth/Kirschenbaum Films, Team Downey
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson (voice), Rami Malek (voice), John Cena (voice), Kumail Nanjiani (voice), Octavia Spencer (voice), Tom Holland (voice), Craig Robinson (voice), Ralph Fiennes (voice), Selena Gomez (voice), Marion Cotillard (voice), Kasia Smutniak, Ralph Ineson, Carmel Laniado, Frances de la Tour, Jason Mantzoukas, Joanna Page
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Screenwriters: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand; screen story by Thomas Shepherd, from characters created by Hugh Lofting
Producers: Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Susan Downey
Executive producers: Robert Downey Jr., Sarah Bradshaw, Zachary Roth, Jonathan Liebesman
Director of photography: Guillermo Navarro
Production designer: Dominic Watkins
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Editor: Craig Alpert
Music: Danny Elfman
Casting: Lucy Bevan

Rated PG, 101 minutes