I wasn’t expecting Dolittle to be good, exactly, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite this bad. The story of the oddball physician who could talk to animals, introduced in Hugh Lofting’s beloved children’s book series of the 1920s and ’30s, has never fully managed to work as a movie for some reason: I loved watching the 1967 Rex Harrison–Richard Fleischer Doctor Dolittle as a kid, but growing up meant I could no longer ignore its weirdly bloated insistence, the desperate rot of a studio spectacular made just as an industry was dying. (Mark Harris’s book Pictures at a Revolution has a great account of the making of that film.) 1998’s Eddie Murphy–Betty Thomas hit Dr. Dolittle was sweet, dopey, innocuous fluff, which is I’m sure adored by many who grew up watching it. And now we have the supremely expensive, Robert Downey Jr.–starring, Stephen Gaghan–directed Dolittle (though apparently others also took turns behind the camera once the project was sent into reshoots), which is the kind of movie whose incompetence boggles the mind and corrupts the soul. You go into this thing expecting silly insouciance and walk away from it questioning reality. It is anti-cinema.
Of course, it should be a spirited, high-flying adventure, with wise-cracking CGI animals voiced by celebrities (John Cena! Selena Gomez! Rami Malek! Jason Mantzoukas, apparently!), but it’s all so cluttered and shrill that I’m not even sure I got the basis of the plot right. Here’s the setup: After his beloved wife dies at sea, the good doctor retreats into Dolittle Manor and his rambling wildlife sanctuary to live out a hermitlike existence, surrounded only by his many creatures. (In the somber words of Polynesia, the wise and headstrong parrot voiced by Emma Thompson: “As for me, and the animals whose lives he saved, we were left to wonder if anybody would save his.”) Years later, Dolittle is pulled back into action when he gets two simultaneous visitors: Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), a young girl who wants him to help the very sick Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), and Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young boy who has brought along a wounded squirrel he shot in a hunting accident. Dolittle performs surgery on the squirrel (as the kids watch … smiling, for some reason) and then reluctantly agrees to help the Queen after learning that if she dies, his manor will be taken over by the Treasury, kicking him and his animals out right in the middle of hunting season. After examining the Queen (and beginning to suspect that she might have been poisoned), Dolittle announces that her royal highness can only be cured by an extract from the rare fruit of the Eden Tree, and off he and his menagerie go to harvest it.
The problems are manifold, but let’s start with the most tragic one: Downey, a delightfully inventive, generational talent who has been borged into the Marvel machine for the past decade-plus, seems determined to sabotage this movie. His rapid-fire delivery, his self-aware energy, his ability to win over an audience, should have been ideally suited for this character, but he undoes any potential goodwill by opting for an ill-advised and half-hearted Welsh accent which occasionally (and I’m assuming inadvertently) slips into Irish, Indian, and Jamaican intonations. The haphazard delivery naturally makes the whole performance feel slapdash, but Downey’s voice has also been mixed in a way that feels artificial, like we’re watching a poorly dubbed version of a foreign-language film. This is a problem for the animals as well, whose dialogue doesn’t quite match their CGI lips, and whose voices don’t sound like they’re coming from any part of the film’s physical space. Watching the movie, it felt like the voices were in my head. Maybe they were; I can’t tell anymore. Or maybe it has something to do with what was reportedly a complete, ground-up revision of the story and weeks of extensive reshoots.
It shows. The story hops around with whiplash-inducing lunacy, and not in a good way. The behind-the-scenes turmoil (which I only learned about after seeing the picture) bleeds into the visuals as well. Every frame, every cut feels off. But I’m not sure we can entirely blame reshoots for this. There is no onscreen evidence that Dolittle, in any iteration, was ever anything but hopelessly inert. And failure this thorough has a virulent effect that reaches beyond one mere film; it makes you question the cinematic form itself. Is this thing uniquely bad, or did movies always suck and I’m just now realizing it? was an actual thought that briefly passed through my head.
Dolittle is somehow both frantic and lifeless: There’s no energy to the scenes of our hero and other humans interacting with the animals, which we could possibly ascribe to poorly conceived and executed visual effects. But it’s not like there’s much energy to the humans interacting with other humans either. It almost feels like shots have been repurposed to do and communicate things narratively that they weren’t meant to convey. During one scene, a character pulls a knife and I’m pretty sure it was presented in three different cuts — and in no shot did we actually get a clear look at the knife. It was almost as if we were watching stolen documentary footage of the real-life actor pulling a knife on set, demanding to be freed from this unholy production.
Look, sometimes these things go south. A director isn’t quite suited for a specific project, or an actor disagrees with the direction in which things are going, or a studio proves intransigent, or a script is not ready in time, or Mother Nature hits the set, or the drugs are too plentiful. (Sometimes all of these things happen, and you get The Island of Dr. Moreau.) Frankly, I’m often amazed any good movies get made at all. Still, it’s a shame when so much effort has clearly gone into something that looks and feels so cheap, uninspired, and broken. Dolittle is a calamity for the ages.