Current Issue #488

Film Review:

Robert Downey, Jr. in Dolittle
Robert Downey, Jr. in Dolittle

Author Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle gets yet another new lease on life on this, his 100th birthday, and the result is a tediously overblown yawn that makes a monkey out of star Robert Downey Jr.

A movie very obviously fiddled with (and then fiddled with some more), this was taken out of co-writer/director Stephen (Syriana) Gaghan’s hands and extensively and expensively rewritten (by Chris McKay from those LEGO movies) and redirected (by Jonathan Leibesman of would-be-blockbusters like Battle Los Angeles), and the finished product looks as hopelessly messy and clunky as expected.

There are some interesting comparisons to be made with this and the worse Cats, the new yardstick by which to measure the scale of Hollywood fiascos: both are drawn from well-established, surely unbeatable properties; both are full of prestige players; and, of course, both are chockers with heavy-duty FX. So how could they possibly lose? Well, where do we start???

And why does no one remember that the poor Doctor has always had a hard time of it in the cinema? 1967’s lumbering musical Doctor Dolittle, starring Rex Harrison, was a colossal flop at the time, for example, while the late-90s Dr. Dolittle franchise begun with Eddie Murphy are ghastly beyond belief. Surely the character should be struck off the medical register by now?

Nevertheless, we open here with an animated introduction narrated by Emma Thompson that details how Dolittle once travelled the world with his wife Lily and did wonderful things with his unexplained ability to talk to animals. Lily, however, tragically died (that word is actually used) at sea and since then Dolittle (Downey) hasn’t left his manor home in seven years, but one day he receives two visitors: a soft-hearted kid named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who’s wounded a squirrel during a half-hearted attempt at hunting, and young Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who summons the doctor to Buckingham Palace and the bedside of the mysteriously poisoned Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley looking nothing like the young Her Majesty).

The hairy, grungy, weirded-up Dolittle has to be convinced to save the Queen, and we’re given the full force of Downey’s brazenly unfunny performance right from the word go. Desperately keen to please kiddie audiences after so many years doing nothing but Marvel pics, he offers his tiredly eccentric routine along with a bizarre Scottish (?) accent that might have been dismissed as being too damn over-the-top for even Mike ‘Austin Powers’ Myers.

Dolittle decides that he must make a journey to a mythical island to find a cure, and he sets off with Tommy and his CG animal besties at his side, and while they’re all voiced by name players, it’s hard to pick who they all are – or care much too. Still, they not-so-notably include: a wise macaw named Poly(nesia) (Thompson); an anxious gorilla named Chee-Chee (Rami Malek); Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani), a fussy ostrich; polar bear Yoshi (John Cena); duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer); and Kevin (Craig Robinson), the healed squirrel, on hand to do pseudo-Star Trek gags with a paranoid touch.

In turn, they’re pursued by Dr. Blair Müdfly, the main baddie of the piece, and he’s played by (no spoilers necessary) Michael Sheen in drearily villainous form, while Ralph Fiennes eventually knocks off the voice of a tiger named Barry (???) and an eye-rolling Antonio Banderas turns up as pirate king Rassouli, and he tries – and succeeds – in being even more irritating than Downey’s Dolittle. Quite a feat, really.

The kind of sprawling rugrat-targeted outing that’s naturally intended to be a family-friendly charmer for the holidays, this exhaustingly busy stinker instead feels like something that should be used as a tool for punishment for some silly-season indiscretion. Or even maybe a threat? “I promise you, if you don’t eat your broccoli I’ll make you watch Dolittle again!!!”

Reviewer Rating

Dolittle (PG) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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