Robert Downey Jr. is on top of the world. Recently capping off an eleven-year stretch as Iron Man in the obscenely lucrative Marvel films, in which he reportedly earned $75 million for his Endgame role alone, he could seemingly do whatever he’d like at this point.
Given that, it’s downright bewildering that he would follow up the iconic superhero era of his career with Dolittle, a slapdash CGI trainwreck that’s as mindless as it is misguided. It’s neither thrilling nor funny, which is problematic for a film that purports to be an adventure comedy. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone over the age of the average kindergartener will get much from this bloated mess of a movie.
Mangling an untraceable South African/Scottish/Welsh accent, Downey plays Dr. John Dolittle, a reclusive veterinarian who’s holed up in a mystical manor where he communicates with a menagerie of animals. When he gets word that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has fallen deathly ill, he climbs atop his sassy ostrich and hightails it to Buckingham Palace alongside his companion creatures.
He arrives to find that the Queen has been poisoned and that the cure can only be found on a remote island on the other side of the world. With his new human apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett) and animal friends by his side, Dolittle sets out on a journey to retrieve the precious antidote.
Atop the heap of beguiling creative decisions behind Dolittle is the choice to have Stephen Gaghan, the mind behind hard-hitting political dramas like Traffic and Syriana, direct and co-write this would-be family entertainment. Besides 2016’s Gold, he hasn’t directed anything since Syriana back in 2005. Nothing in his previous work would indicate that he would even be a close fit for something this toothless and juvenile.
He and his three co-writers strain hard for laughs that, aside from a misjudged Godfather reference, are aimed squarely at youngsters.
Even though the story is ostensibly set in 19th century England, the animals interject frequently in 21st century American vernacular, as when an octopus warns Dolittle “snitches get stitches.”
The depressingly overqualified voice cast, which includes recent Academy Award winners like Rami Malek and Octavia Spencer, does their best to give life to their lifeless CG counterparts. Spencer, whose duck character is actually named Dab-Dab, is saddled with anachronistic clunkers like, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my bill?”
It’s difficult to imagine what could have compelled this many talented actors to sign up for this freak show in the first place. Most of the film is so on-the-nose obvious about what it’s trying to do and who it’s trying to appeal to, it plays out like one of the parody trailers that opened the Downey-starring Tropic Thunder.
The film peaks far too early with a lovely, hand-drawn animated prologue outlining Dolittle’s long-lost love and I would have much preferred watching a story carried out in this style.
Instead, we have to bear the sight of Downey mugging against computer-generated cacophony with at least half of his lines sounding like they were re-recorded in post-production.
With a $175 million budget, you may come in expecting Marvel-level visual effects. But the fantastical creations here are much more dubiously rendered. Other non-animal shots, like one in which Stubbins leaps from one part of a bridge to another, are equally unconvincing.
Tepid and tedious, Dolittle is an endless parade of wasted talent both on and off camera.
Coming to theaters this weekend
The Gentlemen, starring Matthew McConaughey and Charlie Hunnam, is the latest action caper from Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie about a British drug lord attempting to sell his empire to a group of Oklahoma billionaires.
The Turning, starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, is a supernatural horror update on “The Turn of the Screw” about a newly appointed nanny who looks after two disturbed orphans in a haunted Maine estate.