If I could talk to the animals, I’d say one thing:
Please make it stop.
In the 1967 musical “Doctor Dolittle,” Rex Harrison played the titular doc with a gift for communicating with creatures great and small. It was a giant bomb, as it deserved to be.
In 1998’s “Dr. Dolittle” (and for the sequel in 2001), Eddie Murphy took on the role, with mixed results. (There was also the straight-to-video “Dr. Dolittle 3,” in 2006, with Kyla Pratt reprising her role as Murphy’s daughter.)
Now comes the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle “Dolittle,” and it just might be the most worst of the whole lot.
The co-writer/director of this film is Stephen Gaghan, who won the Academy Award for his screenplay of “Traffic” and is the writer-director of “Syriana.” So … we have the brilliant Stephen Gaghan writing and directing a film starring the genius Robert Downey Jr. — AND IT’S A DAMN DOLITTLE MOVIE?
We have the first serious contender for Wasted Opportunity of the Decade.
As we learn in an animated prologue, Dr. John Dolittle and his beloved wife Lily (played by Kasia Smutniak in live-action flashbacks) presided over Dolittle Manor, a sprawling sanctuary in the English countryside where they cared for — and communicated with — all manner of animals.
They were deliriously happy. Life was grand.
But then Lily embarked on a perilous journey while John stayed home with the animals — and when Lily was lost at sea, John closed the doors of the sanctuary and fell into a deep depression.
Cut to seven years later. The reclusive doc is still holed up in Dolittle Manor, avoiding all contact with humans while surrounded by a small band of loyal animal friends, including:
- Downey’s MCU protege Tom Holland voicing Dolittle’s loyal pup and bestie Jip.
- Polynesia (Emma Thompson), a motherly macaw who looks after Dolittle.
- Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), an apparently addled duck who waddles about madly like an ancestor of that Aflac mascot.
- Yoshi (John Cena), a polar bear who’s always cold, ha ha.
- Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), a ferocious-looking gorilla who is actually super-timid and afraid to face all his fears.
Wonderful actors — but they all go way over the top, clearly aiming for the children in the audience as they try to wring some laughs out of the often cheesy, corny and flat dialogue.
The seven-year, no-human-contact streak of the disheveled, long-bearded, mumbling, borderline mad Dolittle is shattered when not one but two young people find their way into his home.
Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who has accidentally shot and wounded a squirrel (voiced by Craig Robinson), is hoping the good doctor can save the little guy. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) has come calling in the hopes Dolittle can save Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who has fallen gravely ill due to some mysterious affliction.
Even in his sorry state, the good doctor wouldn’t think of turning his back on an animal in distress, so cue the Squirrel Surgery Sequence! However, he has no intention of accompanying Lady Rose to the palace — until the girl explains if the queen dies, Dolittle Manor will be shut down and all inhabitants will be evicted.
Off we go, with Dolittle’s animal friends riding in a royal carriage while the good doctor hitches a ride atop Plimpton the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), who fusses and complains every stride of the way.
Michael Sheen is the scheming and evil Dr. Mudfly, who has been consumed with envy of Dolittle since their days in medical school. Jim Broadbent is Lord Thomas Badgley, who has been poisoning the queen and is poised to assume the throne upon her death.
Then that confounded Dolittle arrives, mucking up everything!
With the help of his animal friends, Doctor Dolittle ascertains the source of the queen’s illness and says there’s only one possible cure: a magical, perhaps mythical fruit that according to legend can be found on a mystical tree on a mysterious island not to be found on any conventional map.
Dolittle and his self-appointed apprentice Tommy — and of course the animals — set sail on a mad and dangerous quest, which includes a long detour to the pirate kingdom of the cutthroat Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who wants nothing more than to see Dolittle dead, because as it turns out, Lily was his daughter and he blames the doc for her death.
The adventures at sea and on the islands play out like low-rent, animal-centric scenes from a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. By the time the doc endures massive dragon flatulence while performing emergency surgery on the fire-breathing creature, “Dolittle” has solidified its standing as a spectacularly terrible multi-vehicle pileup.
At times Downey’s eyes seem to glaze over with boredom as he “interacts” with the VFX and SFX animals. Downey plays Dolittle as a Welshman — but it sounds as if he’s channeling Robin Williams’ accent from “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
I’m not kidding. He sounds a LOT like Mrs. Doubtfire.