Jesus Christ on the cross, somebody please help Robert Downey Jr. He’s had his problems in the past, for sure (things like Due Date, not referencing his previous tendencies to chemically propel himself through each day), but, for the most part, I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed him as an actor. He is a talented fellow who always emanates a warm earnestness through the screen, so it is purely out of humanitarian concern that I’m positing him as a candidate for immediate involuntary hospitalisation in a psychiatric unit or as one for rigorous testing for early senility or a stroke, as it is only these hypotheses that could possibly explain the utterly unnecessary debacle that is Dolittle.
In this weird and pointless adaption of Hugh Lofting’s beloved saga of children’s fantasy, Downey Jr. plays the titular Dr John Dolittle as something of a Welsh-accented Blackbeard in the grips of a manic episode. The Welsh tones, as I understand it, were Downey Jr.’s idea, and he doesn’t so much sound like a Welshman as he does an American hobo doing an inebriated impression of one for some spare change and a beer. God only knows what fellow cast member and legitimate Welshman Michael Sheen made of his baffling attempt, not merely for the facts that it does absolutely nothing to service the narrative and that the original literary incarnation of Dolittle wasn’t even Welsh, it must just be bizarre as fuck listening to somebody butcher the accent of your native land in a way that doesn’t seem to know whether it’s trying to mock it or make it endearing (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate a still of his deranged facial and cranial locks, so I’ll drop one spoiler by revealing that he shaves halfway through).
Dolittle has taken to living a hermit’s life after the death of his wife Lily. He confines himself to his overgrown jungle-like sanctuary accompanied by a menagerie of zany, wild CGI beasts that he is able to fluently communicate with in their respective animal languages. Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer and Ralph Fiennes are just a handful of stars who lend their voices to Dolittle’s hairy entourage, and even with that level of talent, it falls entirely on its arse. None of the jokes hit a bullseye at any point, the script treating us instead to corny and unimaginative banter and idiotic one-liners built around unimpressive set pieces. The synopsis, in a nutshell, is that Queen Victoria is bedridden and at death’s door, and the only individual that the establishment believes has a hope in hell of treating her malady is the good doctor. Summoned to the regal household, Dolittle examines Vicky and deduces that not only has she been poisoned, but that the only surefire way to bring her back from the brink is to obtain the fruit of the Eden Tree, a mythical tree that can only be found on an island far, far away. Gathering his annoying animal cronies, Dolittle sets sail for the island in a race against time to obtain the fruit and rush back to save the day and get the gravely ill monarch back on her feet. Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young man who shows up at Dolittle’s pad one day with a squirrel he’s just shot, elects to join the mission as the doctor’s apprentice, hoping to learn how to speak the various tongues and hopefully not commit any more attempted murder.
During their voyage, Dolittle and co. are stalked and repeatedly attacked by the crew of another ship led by Dr Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), Dolittle’s longtime professional rival and consummate weirdo, driven by contemptuous jealousy of Dolittle and a desire to cement his own reputation as the U.K.’s most beloved maverick physician/mental patient. He also has run-ins with King Rassouli, his crazed ex-father-in-law as played by Antonio Banderas, who gives us an unhinged variant on his usual intense Iberic aplomb. Jokey dialogue, tense scene, battle, everything works out fine. Repeat formula ad nauseam.
There really isn’t much more I can say about this film. I truly wanted it to be a funny, smart and endearing reboot of a classic tale, one that had a bit of everything for ebullient kiddies and even the most cynical adult. But it didn’t, it was boring, nonsensical, laborious in pace, lazy and stupid, and I didn’t actually believe in any of the characters or their relationships for a second. You might be thinking that I possibly ought to lighten up, but I’m not deriding the film because of the concept in the slightest, I actually love it when a filmmaker gets a story like this right, being able to kick back and genuinely enjoy a crazy family-oriented fantasy film is a soul cleanser. But alas, it was a complete waste of time. You’ve been warned, folks.