Robert Downey Jr. Couldn’t Look More Miserable in ‘Dolittle,’ a Confusingly Weird Kids’ Movie
It’s not as fun as you’d think to see Iron Man bantering with a CGI parrot voiced by Emma Thompson. What went wrong in this inexplicably odd, big-budget take on the classic tale?
After the shot of 151-proof mania that was Oscars nomination morning, there’s nothing more sobering than Dolittle.
Barreling through the debate over snubs and surprises and Joker and J. Lo like a paranoid ostrich with the voice of Kumail Nanjiani ridden by Robert Downey Jr.—a thing that actually happens in the film—Dolittle announces itself as both inscrutable and unscrutinizable. A CGI creature lets out an enormous fart. A child in the audience laughs uncontrollably. We have no recourse but to accept it and hand Robert Downey Jr. his paycheck.
This is not the first film adaptation of Dr. Dolittle, the 1920s Hugh Lofting literary character who can talk with animals in their own language. But it is by far the strangest.
Dr. Dolittle is the kind of whimsical source material ripe for family-friendly cinematic imagining. Famously there’s the ambitious 1967 movie musical starring Rex Harrison and the turn-of-millennium franchise with Eddie Murphy channeling the animal kingdom’s chief polyglot. Most recently, there was a 2011 direct-to-video cartoon version starring Tim Curry.
Dolittle (2020), it should surprise you to learn, is directed and co-written by Stephen Gaghan. Gaghan is the Oscar-winning screenwriter who wrote and directed Syriana, the 2005 geopolitical thriller focused on petroleum politics. He also wrote the screenplay for Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s hyper-intense ensemble drama reflecting the brutal realities of America’s war on drugs.
Here, he’s scripting a gorilla voiced by Rami Malek to kick a tiger voiced by Ralph Fiennes in his tiger balls. A duck voiced by Octavia Spencer sasses, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my bill?” Robert Downey Jr. gives a CGI squirrel mouth-to-mouth CPR. Stephen Gaghan contains multitudes!
I like to imagine Downey, who has starred in only two non-Marvel films since the first Avengers movie in 2012 and has one of the highest pay quotes of any actor in Hollywood, going to Universal Pictures and saying, “The next thing I want to do is get into crazy hijinks with a giraffe-fox buddy team voiced by Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard.” And then Universal took out a second mortgage on its theme parks in order to pay him and said, “Absolutely, yes. Let’s do this. We must.”
The truth is that there’s a delightfully high-brow cast here that, with one grand exception, seem ecstatic to have signed on to a splashy studio children’s movie that allowed them to goof off in a big-budget playground.
The adult human ensemble is filled out by rising star Jessie Buckley and award-show favorites Jim Broadbent, Michael Sheen, and Antonio Banderas, each chewing more scenery than the last. The voice cast is absurdly eclectic, yet I can only imagine Emma Thompson getting an offer to voice Polynesia the parrot or John Cena being asked to do Yoshi the polar bear and thinking, sure, why not, sounds fun.
There’s something admirably well-intentioned about peddlers of a certain gravitas bringing their sway and the money that follows to a film their kids can see. From Spielberg tackling Hook to Scorsese doing Hugo, there’s a rich history—with mixed results—of big, ambitious, family-friendly studio films helmed by “serious” directors. With the exception of, strangely, Downey himself, whose countenance while bantering with a CGI parrot on his shoulder betrays a person who might rather be undergoing a root canal, everyone seems to be having a blast doing it.
But the best intentions don’t justify the reality that kids deserve better than Dolittle, a movie with a convoluted mythology, drive-by sophomoric humor, and visual effects lacking the sophistication a project like this merits—even if it is aimed at children.
At face value, the crux of the narrative here is simple: Dr. Dolittle has lost his mojo, and sets off on an adventure to get his groove back. What’s unexpected is how grimly riddled with death that narrative is.
In an animated preamble, we learn how Dr. Dolittle earned great notoriety in Britain for his unique ability to help animals and cure them of unusual maladies, garnering the attention of even the queen. After discovering a kindred spirit in an adventurer named Lily, they travel the world together, amassing a chosen family of creatures along the way.
They open a refuge of sorts in the middle of the forest, a zoological utopia where two people in love practice their passion. One day, Lily sets off on her own voyage, asking Dolittle to stay behind and tend to the animals. She gets in a shipwreck and dies, devastating Dolittle and sending him into the reclusive spiral of cranky disarray in which we meet him.
Two spunky kids encounter the hermit in his manor, an estate that is part dilapidated flea market and part Rube Goldberg machine operated by domesticated animals. It is entirely unclear what year or point in history it is—the period dress is all over the place—we only know that the queen is on her deathbed and her daughter, Spunky Kid A, has been sent to request her old friend Dolittle’s services in saving her.
Dolittle is entirely uninterested in helping, until he learns that the deed on his animal haven expires if the queen dies. At the prospect of homelessness, he agrees to help, joining the two children, both of whom appear entirely unfazed by the fact that he can converse with multiple species of animals, all of which accompany them on the journey to the palace.
There, they suspect that the queen has been poisoned by a power-hungry doctor and rival to Dolittle, played with all the wily lunacy you’d expect from Michael Sheen in such a role. Dolittle ventures that the only antidote is the fruit of a mythical tree that he believes his beloved Lily discovered on her fateful expedition.
He must find it before Sheen does, or else the queen will die. (Dark!) A cat-and-mouse chase ensues—the rare case in which actual cats and mice are involved.
It’s a strange situation where I cannot ethically “recommend” Dolittle. Yet I cannot with a good conscience tell people not to see it. It is my firm belief that no person should go without the experience of witnessing Robert Downey Jr. make monkey noises while beating his chest in order to communicate with an animated gorilla—and looking absolutely miserable while doing it.
Downey’s characterization of Dolittle is utterly bizarre. His accent is sort of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins meets Captain Jack Sparrow with a leprechaunic lilt. Aside from being geographically unplaceable and often unintelligible, it is entirely different every time he speaks.
This is a family-oriented romp brimming with wise-talking animals, lighthearted action set pieces, and abounding flatulence. Not once does Robert Downey Jr. crack a smile. The humor is juvenile without being entirely clever. The jokes aren’t so much targeted at children but more as if children wrote them themselves. These are animals that can talk to humans. How do you not inspire any genuine laughs?
No one seems to question or care at all that here is a man who can speak in animal tongues, stripping the story of its source material’s endearing lunacy and instead doubling down on the morose existentialism of grief and moving on. Emotional stakes are imperative in family films, and the best of them deal with the greatest of life’s tragedies. But there should also be... fun?
Take solace in the fact that the animals here did not descend from the same acid-trip nightmare as the creatures of Cats, nor are they lifeless zombies emerging from the same uncanny valley as the characters of The Lion King remake.
They don’t look real enough for you to forget for a single second that you are watching a visual-effects facsimile of an animal. But occasionally—and especially when the journey hits the high seas—the sweeping production meets technological ambition and you find yourself properly enthralled.
There’s no describing how disorienting it is to screen this movie in the same news cycle as the one in which the 2020 Oscar nominations are being debated. Cinema? Greatness? Worth? Representation? Here is Robert Downey Jr. wincing at a tooting dragon. What does anything mean anymore?