What exactly is Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the title character of Dolittle? It’s a snuffling, shuffling, head-twitching collection of tics, with a physicality that’s more evocative of a nervous squirrel than the actual CGI squirrel who accompanies Dr. Dolittle on his adventures. Downey’s exaggerated jerks and fits in the film can bring to mind Johnny Depp’s turn as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, with one key difference: as all over the place and occasionally annoying as Depp’s quirk-based acting style can be, it made sense for the captain of a pirate ship to be flamboyant. But, for a Victorian-era physician with a magical gift for understanding animal languages, the choice just feels arbitrary. (After all, neither Rex Harrison nor Eddie Murphy played the character so erratically.) It once again raises the question of why director Stephen Gaghan asked/directed Downey to act that way — or perhaps, why he didn’t ask him to tone it down a little.
But he’s not the only chaotic thing about Dolittle, a real food fight of a movie that’s ostensibly based on a novel: Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, the sprawling second book in his series. As you might expect, the film does go off-book very quickly, so the literary influence here is very minimal. But what replaces it is a confused, zigzag approach to the storytelling, which strips away inconvenient details and brings in flat jokes with an equal sense of desperation. It would be an exaggeration to say that Dolittle has a plot. The viewing experience more resembles a series of malfunctioning screen-savers in which Downey Jr. twitches his head back-and-forth while animals gallivant around him, complaining of various ailments while tossing off hacky one-liners.
The film opens with a storybook animated prologue and first introduces us to Dr. Dolittle, as he’s lost his wife and locked himself away in his estate where he lives with his menagerie of animal friends. Which includes a one-footed duck named Dab-Dab (voiced by Octavia Spencer); a nervous gorilla named Chee-Chee (Rami Malek); a short-sighted dog named Jip (Tom Holland); an always cold polar bear named Yoshi (John Cena); an ostrich named Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani); and a parrot named Poly (Emma Thompson), who’s the leader and voice of reason in the crew. But there’s not much of a movie if Dr. Dolittle stays within the walls of his estate. And so the very Victorian combination of a child aristocrat named Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) and a plucky boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) arrive at his doorstep in the first act, they draw Dolittle out of zoological retirement by invoking the also very Victorian value of loyalty to his monarch (the great Jessie Buckley in a thankless role), who’s bene stricken with a mysterious illness and needs Dolittle’s help. (As you might be wondering, yes, Dr. Dolittle is a veterinarian, but I guess he can treat humans, but prefers not to?) And thus Dolittle, Lady Rose, Tommy, and the animals take off on a Pirates-style voyage across the sea for a magical fruit that will cure the queen of her malady. Along the way, they encounter magical creatures like Antonio Banderas and an irritable dragon with an impacted colon, who Dolittle cures by sticking his arm up her rear-end and pulling out a bagpipe. Yeah … that’s the movie we’re dealing with.
The film is credited to director Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of Traffic, whose best-known work (such as Syriana) revolve around the geopolitics of drug trades and terrorism. And why he was brought aboard for a $175 million children’s film about wisecracking animals is beyond me, but he didn’t finish it alone; Dolittle reportedly went through reshoots mandated by the studio (which Gaghan wasn’t apart of) to add more humor after negative test-audience feedback, and it shows. Dolittle is full of anachronistic pop culture references and poop and fart humor — jokes delivered in a suspiciously low-impact style by the film’s (poorly) animated animals, seemingly used to paper over the film’s incoherent structure.
Occasionally, a bit pops up that’s specific to a particular species, like the scene where Dolittle escapes the jaws of a man-eating tiger by waving a mirror like a laser pointer. But most of those scenes don’t bring much amusement, but Michael Sheen’s over-the-top performance as Dolittle’s sworn rival, the sputtering incarnation of medical mediocrity Dr. Blair Müdfly does find some light. He, along with most of the supporting cast of humans emerge largely unscathed, but sadly most of them barely matter in a movie where ninety percent of the dialogue consists of bargain-basement sitcom zingers delivered by ducks and squirrels. But, what makes Sheen shine is that he’s not taking his role even remotely seriously, and is playing for the amusement of the children in the audience rather than operating by a misguided faith in the power of one-liners or a short-sighted conception of his movie-star brilliance. If only everyone else involved in this production had the same clarity. Not much works in Dolittle: from its muddled, messy storytelling to its flat jokes, the film ultimately splats onto the screen like a chimp throwing its own feces, with few laughs and no charm.