It’s been more than half a century since Rex Harrison spoke (and sang!) to animals as author Hugh Lofting’s eloquent veterinarian (Richard Fleischer’s 1967 musical film was nominated for nine Oscars, including best picture), and just over two decades since Eddie Murphy gave his own goofy modern portrayal. That’s enough time for Dr. Dolittle to fade from kid audiences’ collective consciousness, and just the right amount for Lofting’s first two books to enter the public domain, which explains why a new studio — Universal, where the two earlier incarnations hailed from Fox — has opted to revive the character yet again, this time enlisting the intensely charismatic actor Robert Downey Jr. to play the title role.
Trouble is, this latest “Dolittle” is downright sloppy. Director Stephen Gaghan’s period-set overhaul of the literary classic proves to be as predictable as it is obnoxious. In its defense, the film evokes an arm’s-length connection with its cute CG creature coterie and delivers heartening messages about psychological trauma, and yet, the charm-starved adaptation simultaneously tests audiences’ patience with overly complicated, noisy scenarios. What should have been an awe-filled adventure quickly curdles into an awful one, thanks to a pedestrian formula and the filmmakers’ fixation on fart jokes.
Dr. John Dolittle (Downey) has been squirreled away in his British countryside manor since the death of his wife years earlier. His lush, palatial estate has fallen into disrepair, overgrown with vines and greenery (a metaphor!) that provide a protective layer to shut out human company. Though he’s cloaked in tattered clothing and sports an overgrown, ZZ Top-style sadness beard, we spot a hint of the fantastical genius who once embraced the joys of living through his interactions with the furry, feathered, and seemingly ferocious animal companions rehabilitating on the property.
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Dolittle’s chosen life of solitude is interrupted one day by both Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young man compelled to become an apprentice, and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), the Queen’s (Jessie Buckley) intrepid young daughter, who’s been sent to enlist the eccentric doctor’s aid. The Queen is on her deathbed and Lady Rose needs help not only to solve the mysterious circumstances surrounding her poisoning, but also to locate a potential antidote. The stakes are high for Dolittle since, if the queen perishes before the upcoming solar eclipse, he’ll lose control of his animal sanctuary. Luckily, the doctor knows where to find a journal that tells the location of a cure. The treacherous journey will have Dolittle and company fending off a rogues’ gallery of ne’er-do-wells, including the sniveling palace doctor and former Dolittle antagonist Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), crooked Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent), and conniving King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who has ties to Dolittle’s past.
Screenwriters Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, and Gaghan, working from a story by Thomas Shepherd, frequently go off-book in order to sketch their refurbished tale, borrowing only a waft of inspiration from the novels’ versions of Dolittle and Stubbins. It’s a shame that same level of evolving design wasn’t applied to the new characters. The women in Dolittle’s world demonstrate tenacity of spirit, but only to a limited degree: One of them is dead for the exclusive purpose of aiding two male characters’ arcs, and the other gumption-fueled gal is left at home while the men adventure, satisfying traditionally feminine domestic constructs (nursing her ailing mother). Such faintly sexist leanings are slightly forgivable when the narrative is peppered with healthy sentiments about how to handle grief, anxiety, and disability, as well as the values of being vulnerable with each other and kind to animals. Still, those messages are garbled in execution and lack the proper breathing room to make them impactful on the characters for more than a few seconds when conveniently utilized.
Despite the good the picture attempts to put into the universe, there’s much more that drags it down. The sheer volume of crass flatulence jokes and routines involving animal nether regions should get youngsters in the audience laughing, but will just as assuredly make the grownups groan. Once the film wears out jokes with dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), discussing butts and scooting on the floor, you’d think the film would’ve reached its capacity. But no, there’s still more in store, as the film stoops to include a disgruntled tiger (Ralph Fiennes) getting kicked in the crotch and a dragon (Frances de la Tour) getting an enema.
The movie’s elaborate — and, ultimately, repetitive — Rube Goldberg-inspired action sequences might have been more effective if streamlined, while the absurdist humor to be found in these moments is frequently undercut in favor of garish, pratfall-adjacent shenanigans. Editor Craig Alpert cuts away too quickly from a bit between rebellious fox Tutu (Marion Cotillard) and brave giraffe Betsy (Selena Gomez) about how they’ll cover up Stubbins’ death if he doesn’t make it onto Dolittle’s ship, one of many moments drowned out by Danny Elfman’s overbearing score. Plus, the anachronistic dialogue from polar bear Yoshi (John Cena, who says “bro” a bunch) and an octopus who spews “snitches get stitches” clash with the immersive Victorian-era world the filmmakers have crafted.
All these misfired attempts at humor serve to dampen Downey’s innate magnetism — so strikingly evident in his revival of the “Sherlock Holmes” franchise — which is completely lost in this back-to-the-book reboot. The compelling nuance of Dolittle facing his crippling sorrow yields little emotional wallop. And while one can make excuses for the non-uniformity of all those voiceover accents, seeing as how the animals hail from all over the globe, it’s a puzzle trying to figure out Downey’s mush-mouthed Welsh accent. Considering that Dolittle’s signature is the fact he can talk to animals, it’s a puzzle why Downey’s performance sounds as if it were entirely looped in ADR. Now that the rights to Lofting’s novels have lapsed, this surely won’t be Hollywood’s last Dolittle adaptation. Let’s just hope whoever follows can write the right prescription, balancing between humor and heart to deliver a doctor worth celebrating.