Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Writers: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand
When you consider the vast amount of collaborative work that goes into making a film of any kind and factor in the endless number of things that can possibly go wrong, it really is a wonder that any great films get made at all. Even the most surefire, well-intentioned movies can go completely wrong with just a little bit of bad luck. Whether it’s a director who simply isn’t right for the project, an actor who has committed themselves to a misguided performance, a script that needed more time before its submission, a studio that refuses to concede any ground, an act of God, or any other number of things, some movies are just doomed to fail. Sometimes things go so badly that the studio is left with no choice but to release a movie that isn’t even finished, which is how we get films like Suicide Squad and Fant4stic. We can only guess what went wrong behind the scenes of Dolittle, a film that was originally to be titled The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle as directed by Stephen Gaghan (best known for geopolitical thrillers such as Traffic and Syriana (you know, for kids!)) until it was made to undergo extensive, studio-mandated reshoots. Whether it was pulled apart by conflicting ideas and intentions or if the movie Gaghan made was simply unsalvageable, Dolittle is a colossal trainwreck of epic proportions. It is so incoherent in its entirety, so confused in its intention and so disjointed in its construction that I’m honestly unsure if it can technically be considered a film.
To say that Dolittle has a plot would be charitable; it would be more accurate to describe the ‘film’ as a haphazard montage of outtakes and half-finished scenes cobbled together by a blind chimp. The endless 100-minute runtime consists of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), a surly and eccentric man with a superhuman ability to talk to animals in a Welsh-ish accent, mumbling and twitching his way from one moment to the next while a collage of celebrity-voiced CGI creatures scramble around him spouting one-liners. The only indicator that one scene has ended and another has begun is a change in the setting. Such backdrops include a derelict mansion that Mrs. Havisham would call untidy, a whimsical ship sailing across the ocean blue, a vaguely Caribbean stronghold city ruled by a pirate king and a hidden cave of mystical secrets. The basic premise compelling him on his travels to these locales is that Queen Victoria (an underutilised Jessie Buckley) has fallen gravely ill and is need of a magical remedy. Joining the good doctor on his quest are his animal compatriots including Polly the maternal parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the cowardly gorilla (Rami Malek), Yoshi the gruff polar bear (John Cena), Plimpton the sarcastic ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), and Dab-Dab the scatter-brained duck (Octavia Spencer). Also along for the ride is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young animal-loving boy who steps in as Dolittle’s apprentice.
I think that’s the premise anyway; Dolittle is so cluttered with content and noise that it’s near impossible to make any of it out. Any sort of emotional resonance or thematic exploration that was supposed to be carried all the way through gets lost amidst all the screeches, pratfalls and fart jokes. We get that Dr. Dolittle is an unhinged but brilliant man who has lived in seclusion ever since his wife’s death (because of course our antihero’s backstory includes a tragic romance with a woman who only appears in flashbacks and never speaks a line of dialogue). We therefore do get these vague gestures towards something almost resembling an arc wherein a wounded recluse finds that the only way to heal himself and his animal patients is for them to open themselves and their sanctuary to the outside world, but between Downey Jr.’s bizarre acting choices and the absence of any intelligible character development it’s hard to read even that much into any of it. Playing a character previously depicted on-screen by Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy in his first non-Marvel movie since 2014, not even Downey Jr. himself seems to know what he’s supposed to be going for and winds up fumbling into this awkward middle ground between his Ritchie Sherlock and Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow while clumsily maintaining a distractingly inconsistent accent. If ever there was an actor who might have been able to make some sense out of the chaos, it would be him. Sadly, some films are beyond saving.
The problems with Dolittle are legion and we could spend all day dissecting its narrative shortcomings, its weak characterisation and its staggering unfunniness but these are all just symptoms of what’s really wrong with this movie. The real problem is far deeper and more foundational: it is an incomplete film. Dolittle is a failure of filmmaking at its most basic, rudimentary level. Even when given a simple scene of characters talking, be it human to animal or human to human, everything about it feels off. Dialogue is spoken from off-screen or by characters facing away from the camera, eye-lines between the actors and their computer-generated co-stars don’t align, and the continuity between and within scenes is all over the place. Characters such as a dancing orangutan and a guy in stocks called Jeff turn up out of nowhere to deliver a gag only to suddenly disappear, never to be mentioned again. Footage that has been ripped out of its original context and repurposed to fulfil functions and communicate ideas that it was never intended for sticks out like a sore thumb. This is filmmaking 101 stuff we’re talking about and a movie that cannot get them right is no better than a book without any understanding of its own language or a song that cannot sustain its own key, timbre or form. Such rules can and should be defied or broken, but to do so would demand far greater literacy and self-awareness than Dolittle possesses.
I suppose that as far as kids movies go the CG animals are watchable enough; this is the kind of film where it works better if the animals look cutesy and cartoonish than if they look photorealistic. The movie did itself no favours though by casting based more on star power than on vocal talent. Many of the voices are so generic or are so inappropriate for the creature in question (looking at you Malek) that it isn’t always apparent who is saying what in a given scene. Not that learning who said what would be very illuminating given that 90% of the animals’ roles can be broken down to reaction shots and cringeworthy one-liners. The low point for me was probably watching a tiger called Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) scream “My Barry berries” upon being kicked in the groin (yes, that happens). Michael Sheen, who gleefully plays a moustache-twirling villain, appears to be the only actor who truly understands what kind of movie he’s in. What that is, I’m still not sure if I can say. There’s a definite Pirates of the Caribbean swashbuckling epic aesthetic it’s going for, but it cannot hope to reconcile that feeling with its more topical, anachronistic elements. These include a whole bunch of modern quips like “snitches get stitches”, an Angry Birds reference, and an ironclad warship that dogs (geddit?) Dolittle and his crew. Again, these are elements that would work better in a movie that has a better idea of what it is but I don’t think Dolittle has a clue.
Dolittle is one of those truly bad films that really put things into perspective. In many of the reviews I’ve read I’ve seen a lot of comparisons being made between this film and Cats. There is a fundamental difference though which is that Cats, for all of the outrageous choices it made in depicting this hellish world inhabited by these grotesque, deranged, hypersexual humanoid cats, knew precisely what kind of movie it was. It may well be the most disturbing film ever made, but it’s also striking, true to itself, and memorable. Dolittle is none of those things; it is just an outlandishly bad film that offers nothing worthy of a strong reaction. The only thing in this whole film that I can honestly call distinctive is that it contains an extended dragon fart joke (yes, really). In essence it is the same kind of movie we see come out of Hollywood every year, one that was designed by committee to appeal to the lowest common denominator with no allowance for cleverness, creativity or contemplation. Kids will probably laugh at the silly cartoon animals and parents may even be grateful for the temporary distraction, but they deserve better than this kind of rubbish. ‘Lazy’ is not a word I like using when criticising films because it devalues the efforts of those working people employed by the studios who put their time and labour into creating their rubbish, but in a film that feels this hastily strung together, that seemingly doesn’t care about offering its audience anything new or exciting and that neglects to employ the talent at its disposal to any greater use, I cannot think of a more appropriate word.