A hermit since his wife’s death, physician John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr), who can converse with animals, comes out of seclusion to undertake a mission to track down an antidote to save Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). If Dolittle fails, he loses his animal sanctuary, home to his only friends.
There’s a scene from Richard Fleischer’s 1967 Dr. Dolittle that sees Rex Harrison’s fluent-in-animal physician kiss a seal, who is sporting a reject Little Women costume, then unceremoniously chuck the animal off a cliff. If not quite as brazen, there are equally bonkers moments and choices in the latest adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s beloved children’s story (bagpipes pulled out of a dragon’s anus, for starters). Directed by Stephen Gaghan, the filmmaker who brought us such firm family favourites as Traffic (writer) and Syriana (writer-director), Dolittle is not the Cats-level catastrophe (cats-astrophe?) the US reviews suggested, but it’s at once too frenetic yet underpowered, leaving you unsatisfied by the obligatory post credit gag.
It starts decently enough. An animated prologue details Dolittle’s background, adventuring with his explorer wife before she is killed tragically at sea. Cut to the down-and-out doctor and there is some familiar but nice Wallace and Gromit gadget-y stuff involving getting Dolittle dressed and fed. But, when the adventuring begins, the film’s problems mount up. The big set-pieces — a giraffe versus police chase, a sailing ship battle, Dolittle taking on a tiger voiced by Ralph Fiennes — don’t generate excitement and the stakes of the story seem to decrease as the journey goes on. Gaghan’s filmmaking is clumsy, genuine verve replaced by OTT camera shots, levity and fun dissipated by a leaden tone.
Downey Jr’s central performance lacks the required charming idiosyncrasies — he never finds either Dolittle’s spirit or pain.
The menagerie of CG animals come at you much faster than the plot. The all-star voice cast is huge — from Emma Thompson (a wise parrot) and Rami Malek (a nervy gorilla) to Tom Holland (a myopic mutt) and Selena Gomez (a bland giraffe) — but, even though Dolittle cures all their ailments throughout the adventure, few of them take up residence in the memory. The film never really makes you believe these animals exist in the space. This has nothing to do with VFX (some dodgy compositing aside, the animation is strong) and everything to do with the blocking and cutting.
There are some pleasures. Michael Sheen, as the Queen’s evil doctor who pursues Dolittle to stop him him finding the antidote from a magic tree, plies a nice line in sarcasm and threatens to give the film energy, while some of the incidental jokes — a paranoid squirrel, a funny lady bird gag — land. But it’s not enough to compensate for the film’s failings. Downey Jr’s central performance lacks the required charming idiosyncrasies — he never finds either Dolittle’s spirit or pain — with an accent that starts in Wales but often goes on vacation. Yet perhaps the film’s most baffling decision lies in casting Jessie Buckley, one of the most exciting young actors in the world today, as Queen Victoria and letting her sleep through the entire run time. It seems there are some things as crazy as throwing a seal off a cliff.
Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle generated four sequels. On this showing, Downey Jr’s will be a standalone, an uncynical but mostly lacklustre kids’ flick that doesn’t find its voice, animal or otherwise.