After a decade plus of playing Iron Man, it’s difficult to think of Robert Downey Jr. doing anything else. Though as his time in the MCU has proven, he holds a comedic charisma and an immeasurable dramatic ability that makes him an attractive actor for most directors. Which makes his first post-Iron Man film a surprise. The third iteration: the first starring Rex Harrison (1967) and the second Eddie Murphy (1998)—of Hugh Lofting’s 1922 children’s novel The Voyages of Dolittle stars Downey Jr. as the eccentric physician who speaks to animals. Simple. Nevertheless, Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle is too overwrought for a fantasy adventure and tonally scattered, and Downey Jr. flails in a performance rife with missteps in relation to creative decisions.
Dolittle in many regards takes greater influences from the 1967 adaption, and the original novel than the 1998 version. Fashioned as a fairy-tale, Gaghan initially employs animation to impart the physician’s tragic backstory: Dr. Dolittle was renowned for his gift of talking to animals. He had a wife who shared the same passion and ability. Their fame was so great, the Queen of England honored them with an estate to carry out their work. However, the doctor’s wife tragically went missing looking for Eden Island, leaving him devastated. Since then, he’s locked himself away on their estate, away from humans, only surrounded by animals.
While the rest of the film uses live action, one gets the sense that Dolittle would’ve been better as a cartoon. Instead, computer graphics are used to create the animals. There’s the wise macaw Polynesia (Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee (Rami Malek) a scared gorilla, the odd duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani) a jerkish ostrich, and an MCU re-team with Tom Holland as a dog named Jip. Star-studded children’s movies have become the rage, and performers readily sign up for them. However, to read Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, Jason Mantzoukas, and Frances de la Tour as add-ons can be a dissatisfying bait for older viewers.
In any case, Dr. Dolittle’s life takes a turn when a young boy Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) appears at his front door with an injured squirrel. And later, when Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) emerges too, the two find the physician living as a recluse—with a beard longer than the yellow brick road and hair more shaggy than a cowardly lion. Lady Rose arrives to tell the doctor that the queen (Jessie Buckley) is sick and requires his assistance. Dying, the Queen needs the fruit from an Eden Tree to save her, which causes Dr. Dolittle and Stubbins to sail to the fabled island to find the fruit.
Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, and Gaghan’s screenplay relies on contrasting character dynamics: For instance, the polar bear Yoshi (John Cena) and Plimpton trade one-liners, insulting each other’s appearances and intelligence. Moreover, Chee-Chee’s cowardliness is played for laughs too. However, Dolittle overflows with too many animals vying for attention. We never get a sense of any individual arc. The over stimulation also causes some jokes to fall flat, while muddying the overabundant messages Dolittle tries to communicate: working together, conquering your fears, and forgiveness.
These components thrust a nearly insurmountable pressure upon Downey Jr. to pull together several disparate narrative threads. However, he’s given even more tangents. Dr. Dolittle’s arc expresses the debilitating effects of grief. Additionally, in some respects, Gaghan’s film is also a coming of age story for Stubbins. With the physician as his mentor, Stubbins tries to discover his place in the world. These elements would be heartfelt, if their adventure didn’t recede to the animals’ interpersonal issues. Oddly, Downey Jr. also employs an accent too, which is difficult to place. It slips between Scottish and Welsh. The decision signals an odd misstep for an actor who once portrayed Charlie Chaplin and Sherlock Holmes. While his tense vocalization and guarded syllables do display a man who’s lived through trauma, it distracts from the story almost as much as the spotty CGI of the animals.
Dolittle only survives due to its villains. For one, Michael Sheen plays a wonderfully cartoonish foe in Dr. Blair Müdfly. Often self-conscious of his standing in relation to Dr. Dolittle, his pettiness adds a richness to a film that rarely discovers its center. Moreover, Antonio Banderas appears as a buzz-cut grey-haired King of the Pirates dressed in campy Mardi Gras garb. And he’s menacing. But at a 106-minutes, with too many storylines to count, these components never claim center stage. In fact, even the great Jim Broadbent can’t seem to find screen time. Overwrought and narratively opaque, Gaghan’s Dolittle isn’t sufficient for a pun of its name. Instead, it sinks deeper into an overcrowded fantasy to the point of embracing an average reality.