The teaser trailer for Dolittle was a master class in pandering. While a moody, nakedly and manipulatively sentimental cover of What a Wonderful World plays, we get random scenes of a twinkly-eyed Robert Downey Jr. interacting with CGI animals and occasionally spouting a meme-worthy affirmation. There’s no context, no plot reveal, and a strong feeling like this is meant to be a live-action Disney remake of something you liked as a child. (Even though United Artists is the one to blame.) It was a desperate attempt to gloss up a troubled production that the studio had probably already written off as a failure by that point.
Dolittle features RDJ as the titular doctor, who has the unexplained ability to speak to animals in their own language. The film opens seven years after his explorer wife has died and Dolittle has shut himself away in the nature sanctuary he lives in with his animal friends. He must go out into the world again when he finds out that Queen Victoria is dying and the only cure is a magical fruit that his wife had been trying to find. He sets sail, adventure is had, and something something life lessons.
From almost the beginning of the film, there seems to be an air of obligation hanging over everything. I say almost because the first two minutes are genuinely charming, as an appealing storybook animation gives us the background to the film’s story under Emma Thompson’s assured narration. It makes the remaining 99 minutes feel that much more tedious and pointless.
This really seems like it should have gone straight-to-streaming, where it at least could have had a dignified half-life. Thompson, who also voices the macaw Poly, seems to be one of the few performers live-action or otherwise who isn’t phoning it in. So much of what’s on screen feels half-formed and flat, from the simplistic narrative to the rushed character arcs. There’s no real message behind Dolittle’s journey, and the story beats themselves aren’t dynamic enough to build a compelling narrative off of. A lot of work has gone into making things look professional, but it seems ultimately hollow.
I say things look professional because they don’t always look good. The sets aren’t terribly compelling, but they’re fine. The costumes don’t impress, but they’ll do. The score is comprised entirely of Danny Elfman b-sides that get the job done without getting in the way, capped by Generic Sia Ballad 34 during the credits. The CGI is adequate bordering on well-done, except for a rather embarrassing-looking dragon that looks rougher than the one on Netflix’s The Witcher series, which per episode operated on a tiny fraction of this film’s budget.
There are some very truly puzzling choices made throughout the film, as well, from the randomized casting choices to the blatantly anachronistic dialogue. Even though this is set in Victorian England, very few characters speak with an English accent, and the script is covered in modern slang and idioms. The entire animal cast all use their natural voices, leading to a mostly-American troupe of animals. And that might make sense if all of the animals were indigenous to North America. There’s little reason to cast Selena Gomez as a giraffe is what I’m saying.
That being said, several of the voice actors do give good performances regardless. Besides Thompson, who even in her cheapest role is worth the price of admission, we get memorable voice performances from Jason Mantzoukas as a neurotic dragonfly, Marion Cotillard as a law-breaking fox, and Ralph Feinnes as a killer tiger with mommy issues. That last one works better than you think it might, but not nearly as well as it should due to director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan’s clumsy, irony-free handling of the material.
And then there’s the doctor himself. Robert Downey Jr. may or may not truly give a damn about this film. It’s impossible to tell based on his performance. His level of commitment is hidden behind a character that consists entirely of a collection of quirks and an accent straight from the hills of whimsical Irescotland. (It’s actually meant to be Welsh, but it’s so inconsistent that calling it that seems like an insult to the Welsh people.)
RDJ comes off like he’s playing a blunted, child-friendly version of his take on Sherlock Holmes, but without any personal touches. In many ways, this feels like a role he would have taken out of necessity had Marvel not given him a career revival. He’s constantly upstaged not just by his animals but by Michael Sheen, sneering gleefully as Dolittle’s rival, and an unrecognizable Antonio Banderas as a beefy, burly bandit king. Even Henry Collett, as Dolittle’s plucky apprentice, seems more invested in the film than RDJ ever does.
It might seem like a lot of criticism to dish out for what is ostensibly a movie for children, but why should that be an excuse to cut corners on depth and character? Pixar films like Inside Out have proven that it’s possible to make complex, meaningful films aimed at families without sacrificing intelligence or talking down to the audience. There’s no excuse to be lazy or resort to the cheap tricks and shortcuts that Dolittle does. Or all the butt jokes.
The climax of Dolittle involves giving a dragon an enema with a giant leek to dislodge a bagpipe in its colon, and I am not making that up. Even that could be at least semi-amusing if it were filmed with any self-awareness, but the film is utterly convinced of its own sincerity. This was probably never going to be good, but there’s no reason it had to be this painful to sit through. Does this constitute animal cruelty? I’m calling Sarah McLachlan just in case.
FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-