A movie starts with a goal, and Dolittle’s goal is obvious: to spend $175 million. You think I’m joking. But about 20 years ago, the Hollywood studios were losing a ton of money on $70 million movies, so they decided they’d do movies for $150 million and up (or $30 million and down). The theory that a fit of madness like Dolittle is a wise investment is about to be re-disproven.
The picture is a throwback to the pre–Star Wars era of children’s entertainment. The thinking back in those glum Johnson/Nixon-era days was that kids were like adults, only dumber. Why waste money making the script smart? It would only go over children’s heads. Instead, spend the money dazzling the wee things with famous actors, elaborate sets (today displaced by elaborate CGI), and extravagant scenes of wonder that are splashy but clunky, like a load of bricks dumped in a swimming pool. The original Doctor Dolittle (1967) was all of this, plus terrible songs.
A notorious flop, it’ll go down as more successful than the new one. After the Avengers saga, watching Robert Downey Jr. wade through this claptrap is like watching your favorite bright young college graduate accept a job emptying bedpans.
Or worse. In an especially excruciating scene, Dolittle, the Victorian vet who talks to animals, relieves a dragon of its misery by pulling large objects out of its rectum: thighbones, a suit of armor, bagpipes. The following scenes were a blur. All I could think about was when Dolittle would wash his hands, which turned out to be never. Exiting the theater, I headed straight for the Purel aisle of Walgreens.
Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan (the guy who won an Oscar for writing Traffic and wrote and directed Syriana and has therefore tumbled at least as far as Downey down the ladder of quality), Dolittle is a tale of a despondent widower who lives in a splendid animal sanctuary talking to the beasts but refuses contact with the outside world, until a little boy brings him a wounded squirrel and a story about how the queen is dying and needs his help. Since Dolittle will lose his private zoo should the queen die (having obviously been poisoned by duplicitous courtiers played by Michael Sheen and Jim Broadbent), and since the queen can be cured only by an antidote derived from the fruit of an exotic tree found in a faraway land, off he sails with a ship full of animals and the little boy and his sister.
The plot is strictly make-it-up-as-you-go, with strangely unengaging but grimly expensive-looking developments such as Dolittle escaping from Sheen’s inept villain, Dr. Blair Müdfly, by getting his pet polar bear to harness a sailing ship to a passing whale. Really, though, if Sheen and Broadbent’s characters wouldn’t hesitate to poison Queen Victoria, why wouldn’t they have killed Dolittle or prevented him from leaving England? Why, even as Müdfly gives chase, does he seem intent merely on pestering Dolittle a bit instead of finishing him off?
Sheen’s portrayal of Müdfly is in the spirit of Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies, minus the amusing rage and tics. He should be some combination of funny and scary, but instead he’s just a bumbling bore, the kind of nervous Nelly who keeps saying things like “You’re the one obsessing over my obsession with Dolittle.” Downey seems to have adopted a sketchy Welsh accent out of determination to give himself something interesting to do, but thanks to his clenched-jaw muttering, he has rarely if ever been this unappealing. The child actors and their characters are nonentities. The script forgot to give them personalities, again much in the spirit of circa 1970 kiddie movies.
So everything rests on the cute one-liners delivered by the animals, which have about as much zing as your average episode of Barney. There’s a sheep dog with glasses (Tom Holland), a strutting duck (Octavia Spencer), a stroppy macaw (Emma Thompson), a diffident gorilla (Rami Malek), a fox (Marion Cotillard). I counted four Oscar winners in the supporting cast, not to mention — egad, can that be him under that tribal makeup? — Oscar nominee Antonio Banderas as a silly pirate king, plus Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes as a lethal-minded tiger who turns out to be easy to trick. The tiger is called Barry, so when he gets felled by a blow to the crotch, he moans, “Bang in the Barry berries.” So: Tough month for talking-animal movies over at Universal Pictures. Cats, as you may have heard, was not great. Dolittle is like what the felines left behind. In the litter box.