Hollywood makes bad movies all the time. Sometimes they’re highly enjoyable pieces of schlock that divert your attention for 90 minutes before vanishing from memory. Sometimes they’re unwatchable slogs, similarly not worth remembering. Then there are the debacles of the release calendar: genuine catastrophes such as Dolittle, the likes of which are rarer than a talking dragonfly. The newest adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s whimsical 1920s stories about a doctor who can commune with animals stars Robert Downey Jr. and a boatload of CGI critters, and clearly no expense has been spared in bringing it to the big screen. But that doesn’t keep it from being one of the worst cinematic fiascos I’ve seen in years.
The film is credited to the director Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of Traffic, whose best-known works (such as Syriana) revolve around the geopolitics of drug trades and terrorism. Why he was brought aboard for an expensive children’s film about wisecracking animals is beyond me, but he didn’t finish it alone; Dolittle reportedly went through major reshoots mandated by the studio, and it shows. The end result is a movie in which most lines are delivered from offscreen, goofy animal jokes are used to paper over an incoherent structure, and Downey Jr., one of Hollywood’s most charismatic stars, seems completely disengaged. It’s transfixing at times, if only because it’s such a disaster.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Dolittle has a plot. The viewing experience more resembles a series of malfunctioning screen savers in which Downey Jr. twitches his head left and right while animals gallivant around him, complaining of various ailments while tossing off hacky one-liners. The only part of this horrifying tableau that changes is the scenery. Sometimes Dolittle is in the whimsically ramshackle mansion where he lives with his various bestial patients and nurses a broken heart over a long-lost love; sometimes he’s on a boat sailing the high seas, or in an oceanic pirate nation, or in a mysterious dragon-guarded cave. How he gets to these places is mostly unclear, though some very eager narration by a parrot called Polynesia (played by Emma Thompson) tries to explain away every storytelling inconsistency.
The tale she’s tasked with justifying is as follows: Dolittle, a gruff man with a faltering Welsh accent (one of several baffling performance choices by Downey Jr.), is drafted into service by two plucky young children named Tommy (Harry Collett) and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado). His mission, you see, is to save Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who has fallen into a coma, possibly because she’s being poisoned by her aides-de-camp Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen) and Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent). The only way to revive Her Majesty is to retrieve a magical fruit from a hidden kingdom. The perilous journey requires the involvement of almost all of Dolittle’s furry friends, including an ornery polar bear (John Cena), a wisecracking ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), and a cowardly gorilla (Rami Malek).
The events in the above paragraph may sound like feverish ramblings. In reality, they are the components of a narrative so bowdlerized, only a boardroom of studio executives could have created it. Any emotional through line that was originally intended for this film has long since vanished, although there are vestigial hints of a more sensical character arc involving Dolittle’s withdrawal from society and his efforts to rebuild both his own mental health and the well-being of his animal patients. At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for a scene in which a gorilla named Chee-Chee covers his face with his hands and yells, “I am not a prisoner to fear!”
I can understand why such a project caused enough studio panic to prompt reshoots; those pensive moments in Dolittle may never have worked and certainly stick out here. Yet the lighter material is even more bewildering; the movie is essentially one and a half hours of celebrity voice-overs finding different ways to say, “That’s gotta hurt!” Characters appear and vanish from the action with no explanation; at one point, Dolittle and company are welcomed aboard a new boat by a bearded man who announces “I’m Jeff!” and is never seen or mentioned again. Somehow, the supporting cast of humans emerges largely unscathed—Antonio Banderas is a compelling pirate king, Sheen a hilariously preening villain. But that barely matters in a movie where 90 percent of the dialogue consists of bargain-basement sitcom zingers delivered by ducks and squirrels.
Then there’s Downey Jr., who hasn’t appeared in a non-Marvel film since 2014’s The Judge. To shake off his past decade of work as the beloved Tony Stark, he has settled on a performance that can only be described as anti-charming; he’s more of a collection of tics and grunts than a human being. His Welsh accent is absurd—when it’s audible. More often than not, Downey Jr. looks bored, unamused by the CGI antics swirling around him, and even less interested in whatever flimsy action he’s supposed to be driving forward. He may be able to talk to the animals, but the good doctor should have talked to a competent screenwriter, or perhaps just to his agent, before getting embroiled in a mess like this one.
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David Sims is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers culture.