'Dolittle' Review: A Messy, Ill-Conceived Voyage You're Better Off Not Taking

Everyone was a little baffled when Robert Downey Jr. chose to follow his career-defining role as Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with...Dolittle. It turns out, they were right to be. The Stephen Gaghan-directed family adventure film reboots the Doctor Dolittle films, which last saw Eddie Murphy taking on the role of the animal-talking doctor in the 1998 modern-day comedy and its sequels. But Gaghan's new film, like the 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison, takes more direct inspiration from the Hugh Lofting children's novels set in the Victorian era. And like the infamously embattled Harrison film, it is a haphazard mess.

The premise of the Doctor Dolittle character is at its core fanciful and a little childish. After all, what kid doesn't want to talk to animals? Dolittle is a film that needs the light, whimsical touch of a director like Paul King, who turned the beloved marmalade-eating bear of Paddington into the Buster Keaton-esque hero of a wondrous fable. Instead, Dolittle is an incomprehensible swashbuckler wannabe whose swings between bald-faced sincerity and clumsy attempts at humor make it a chore to watch. This is a movie that features a scene in which Dolittle sticks a leek up a dragon's ass to dislodge skeletons, pieces of armor, and what looks to be the entire Spanish Inquisition. At the end, the dragon rewards him with a tender thank you and a long, drawn-out fart in his face.

At first, the film shows promising glimpses of the brightly colored whimsy that it could be. Downey Jr.'s Doctor Dolittle is an eccentric recluse who has shut himself away from the world in his animal sanctuary after the death of his wife Lily (Italian actress Kasia Smutniak, appearing exclusively in dreamy, sun-dappled flashbacks). Sporting wild hair and a Rip Van Winkle-length beard that he has braided with dozens of little bows, Dolittle spends his days playing chess with a cowardly gorilla (Rami Malek) and making breakfast with a host of increasingly ridiculous Rube Goldberg machines. It's a charming introduction of the title character as seen through the eyes of the sensitive local boy Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, giving major discount Tom Holland vibes) who stumbles upon Dolittle's manor, and a young royal Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who arrives at the behest of the sick Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley).

But a series of increasingly bizarre acting choices and cringe-worthy anachronisms turn Dolittle into an unwatchable circus. Let's talk first about Downey Jr.'s garbled accent, which sounds like a Welsh man was put through a meat grinder. His mumbled delivery and irregular speech pattern seem to be trying to recall that of Johnny Depp's massively popular Captain Jack Sparrow — a similarity that becomes more apparent when Dolittle suddenly transforms from a domestic comedy into a grand seafaring adventure. Suspecting that the Queen is poisoned, Dolittle embarks on a quest to find a mythic fruit that will cure all ails. But Dolittle fails at its Pirates of the Caribbean-level ambitions, which it can't reconcile with the countless modern jokes that the film can't help sneaking in. The animals crack jokes about healthcare, a revived squirrel's life flashes before its eyes in the form of a film reel that includes a nuclear blast, two bugs re-enact the opening scene from The Godfather, and the villain of the piece, a mustache-twirling Michael Sheen, arrives on an advanced steel ironclad warship. These anachronistic elements would work in a more self-aware satirical film, but Dolittle doesn't have the capacity for that.

What a waste of a cast too — from esteemed veterans like Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, and Marion Cotillard to rising stars like Tom Holland and Wild Rose's Jessie Buckley (who admittedly gets the best deal out of this film by being knocked out cold for the majority of it as poisoned Queen Victoria). Barely any of them, apart from Thompson, Malek, Kumail Nanjiani (as a snarky ostrich), and John Cena (as a cold-averse polar bear), get more than a few lines (Cotillard gets a measly two-minute appearance where she churns out the most extremely accented lines). When they do, it's something like Fiennes' hostile tiger Barry crying out, "My Barry berries!" after Malek's gorilla kicks him in the groin. Even the live-action cast are given precious little to do unless they chew up as much scenery as possible — Antonio Banderas gets to don gaudy make-up to play a vaguely South American ruler in a sequence of the film that looks like it's shot on a leftover set from Aladdin. One of the most perplexing twists from the film is that Banderas, who is 5 years older than Downey Jr., is playing his father-in-law. It's the equivalent of Russell Crowe calling Tom Cruise a young man in The Mummy.

Dolittle is by no means making an attempt at realism — the CGI animation of the animals looks appropriately cartoonish and the geography vague. But that doesn't excuse how lazy the film's editing can be, and how shoddy the digital slip-ups are considering the hefty $175 million budget. But everything about Dolittle seems hastily put together — from the whiplash-inducing tonal shifts, to the potty humor, to the poor use of a star-studded cast. Dolittle is the kind of film made to the appeal to what Hollywood deems the lowest common denominator of audiences, to hell with smart writing and messages that treat children like human beings. We have to get that dragon fart joke in there./Film Rating: 4 out of 10