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Review: Incoherent 'Dolittle' sinks Robert Downey Jr to new career low

Courtesy of Universal Studios


The roster assembled for the new family adventure “Dolittle” is as follows: Robert Downey Jr, Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley (!) and features the voice work of Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Craig Robinson, and Marion Cotillard. Not even one of these Oscar calibrated performers can do anything to salvage the jumbled disaster that is “Dolittle.”

Author Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle has seen the big screen before in the 1967 version that starred the great Rex Harrison in the lead role. In 2020, Harrison has been swapped with the immensely bankable Robert Downey Jr and you can tell it’s an easy payday for the Marvel juggernaut who sinks his career to new lows. In the wake of his monstrous success, it’s easy for a studio to throw his name on top of the marquee and sell it on his brand alone. It almost worked for the little seen “The Judge” (which was decent) and it should have encouraged the filmmakers to utilize Downey and conjure an imaginative spin on the character. Instead, we get fart jokes galore, poorly dubbed dialogue, crummy looking VFX, and a finale that includes Dolittle performing what’s basically a colonoscopy on a dragon because kids love that!

Plagued by reshoots and a budget that ballooned to around $175 million, director Stephen Gaghan - who made such family hits like “Traffic,” the politically charged thriller “Syriana” and the Matthew McConaughey starrer “Gold” – is obviously out of his element, and the watered down VFX looking animals are laughable. Then again, referring to this as Gaghan’s film seems a bit awkward considering how much of the film was reshot by “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” director Jonathan Liebesman after test audiences didn’t respond to his more serious cut. You can tell the studio did their best surgical procedures to try and piece this wobbly calamity together, down to a convoluted narrative about stealing an exotic fruit to help nurse the ailing Queen (Jesse Buckley) back to good health.

“Dolittle” – at least – has some manic and sugar-coated energy to keep the children from being completely bored out of their minds, like a kiddie version of Downey’s other star vehicle: “Sherlock Holmes.” That still doesn’t negate how confused Downey looks in this and his desperate attempts to do anything short of winking at the camera to provoke a reaction. In the role of the rich and depressed genius who wears tinted sunglasses and spends his days chatting with animals, Downey huffs and scowls for most of the film and it’s painful.

After the animated storybook prologue gets things underway, we learn that Dolittle is in shambles, as the gifted doctor has lost his wife and locked himself away in his gigantic mansion/former animal clinic where he spends his day not showering or shaving with his non-human companions. There’s a talkative parrot (Thompson), a silly duck (Spencer), a short-sighted doggo (Tom Holland), an anxious gorilla (Malek whose practically unidentifiable) and Marion Cottillard as a fox named Tutu. What does the Fox say? Good question because I have no recollection of a fox existing in this movie.

It’s a cast made in heaven and the playful nature of these creatures speaks to the sheer silliness of the source material (though, how do all these different species understand one another?) Alas, Downey – in some Kung-Fu ineffable grumble he spews for 104 minutes – can talk to each of them in a manner that’s never truly explained. But the plot must keep moving and Dolittle hops on an ostrich (Nanjiani – wasted) to Buckingham Palace, where Queen Victoria (Buckley) is dying. What can save her you ask? How about sap from a mythic tree that Dolittle’s wife was researching before she died! Now he’ll have to reach the locations before the sniveling doctor Mudfly (a stomach-churning Michael Sheen) is able to find the magic for himself. There’s also Jim Broadbent as an evil lord with his own conniving agenda, and how about we toss in a pair of tweens (Harry Collet and Carmel Laniado) whose entire character arcs must have been lost between reshoots because I couldn’t tell you why the hell they exist. The only two bright spot rests with Jason Mantzoukas as a smooth-talking dragonfly who negotiates a truce with an army of ants, and Ralph Fiennes as a misunderstood Bengal tiger.

All things considered, “Dolittle” is a fascinating studio train wreck to watch - similar to “Cats” - because some executive poured actual money into this product and then put more money on the table trying to salvage it. I appreciate the effort, but you can obviously tell half of the dialogue was re-dubbed in post-production (like one of those bad lip-reading YouTube videos) and Universal Studios tried to reconstruct it as a theme park attraction without any spark. This is the kind of film that can haunt your career for decades, but let’s give thanks to the gorilla-sized budget that almost guarantees we’ll never endure these characters for the foreseeable future.

“Dolittle” needed to do so much more.

Grade: D

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