Before the litter box scent Cats left behind even had the chance to leave theaters, Universal has pushed out another animal-based bomb in Dolittle, the weirdly chaotic and remarkably unappealing debut of Robert Downey Jr.’s post-Iron Man career. Adapted from Hugh Lofting’s popular children’s book series with the primary concept intact – eccentric doctor who can talk to animals goes on whacky serial adventures – the film’s controlling disconnect in tone might be because its director, Stephen Gaghan, is mostly known for helming the oil thriller Syriana and even wrote the Oscar-winning script for Traffic. It’s a strange resume for a kid’s movie for sure, but at least it provides some avenue of insight into Dolittle’s overwhelming unattractiveness.
The film commences at the sound of parrot player Emma Thompson’s ca-caw. As Polynesia, the doctor’s most trusted advisor, she lays the groundwork to Dolittle’s (Downey Jr.) story, explaining that the once world-renowned veterinarian has remained cooped-up in his mansion ever since his beloved wife was lost at sea. Now a scraggly hermit, Dolittle spends his days hiding from humans but maintaining a remarkable social life with his animal pals: a gorilla, a polar bear, a duck, an ostrich, and so on.
Thompson isn’t the only A-list celebrity to lend her voice to this sinking ship. Oscar-winning actor Rami Malek has chosen the should-be romp to be his first big screen performance since Bohemian Rhapsody; and the rest of the pen is inhabited by furry CGI turns from John Cena, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, Tom Holland, and even Ralph Fiennes, among way too many others.
Even with his ivoried gates and small army of emotional support animals, the doctor’s self-inflicted quarantine still manages to get interrupted by two visitors on the same day: Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a hunter’s son whose guilt provides the film with one of its thread-thick emotional arcs, and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who brings news of the Queen Victoria’s ailing health and with it, the bulk of the story. If Dolittle doesn’t save the Queen from her Caeser-esque administration, then the deed to his land will go up in flames, and his animal compadres will be whisked into the forest in the height of hunting season.
This predicament sets the fair doctor on a set of standard quests that only grows more and more ridiculous. Michael Sheen complicates the seafaring voyage in a villainous role that harkens less to a scientist’s malicious nature and more to the thrill of superseding his former college classmate, and Antonio Banderas (fresh off his first Academy Award nomination, mind you) makes a cameo appearance as a disheartened and disapproving father-in-law.
And yet, despite these strange, off-putting human characters, it is the animals who ultimately break the experience into bits. Oddly crafted CGI appearances aside, the species’ bickering and butting often bumps Downey Jr. off the screen entirely, creating a stampeding, immature, and unreal experience. Gaghan’s screenplay’s – co-written by Dan Gregor and Doug Mand – best remedy is to infect them with exotically unattractive human functions. A heartbroken fly contemplates suicide; a tiger has mommy-induced performances issues; a gorilla has nail-biting anxiety; and, worst of all, a dragon is in dire need of a colonoscopy.
This isn’t to say that children’s films should avoid introducing their younger viewers to the bigger world around them – or find some way to appease its older audience members. But attempting to do so in a series of alarm-sounding, off-kilter antics impresses neither the kid (who may giggle), the adult (who will grunt), nor the kid inside the adult (who never shows up).
Simply put, Dolittle’s lasting impression is that animals are people too. But really, wouldn’t it be better if that moral went the other way around?
by Luke Parker