Hollywood makes bad motion pictures all the time. Often they’re highly enjoyable pieces of schlock that divert your attention for 90 minutes before disappearing from memory. In some cases they’re unwatchable slogs, similarly unworthy keeping in mind. There are the debacles of the release calendar: genuine disasters such as Dolittle, the likes of which are rarer than a talking dragonfly. The most recent adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s whimsical 1920 s stories about a doctor who can communicate animals stars Robert Downey Jr. and a boatload of CGI animals, and clearly no cost has been spared in bringing it to the big screen. That doesn’t keep it from being one of the worst cinematic mess I’ve seen in years.
The movie is credited to the director Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of Traffic, whose best-known works (such as Syriana) revolve around the geopolitics of drug trades and terrorism. Why he was brought aboard for a pricey kids’s film about wisecracking animals is beyond me, but he didn’t complete it alone; Dolittle supposedly went through significant reshoots mandated by the studio, and it reveals. The end result is a motion picture in which most lines are provided from offscreen, silly animal jokes are utilized to paper over an incoherent structure, and Downey Jr., one of Hollywood’s the majority of charismatic stars, seems entirely disengaged. It’s transfixing at times, if just because it’s such a catastrophe.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Dolittle has a plot. The viewing experience more looks like a series of malfunctioning screen savers in which Downey Jr. jerks his head left and right while animals gallivant around him, complaining of numerous ailments while tossing off hacky one-liners. The only part of this horrifying tableau that changes is the scenery. Sometimes Dolittle remains in the whimsically broken-down mansion where he lives with his different bestial patients and nurses a damaged heart over a long-lost love; in some cases he’s on a boat sailing the high seas, or in an oceanic pirate nation, or in a mystical dragon-guarded cavern. How he gets to these places is primarily unclear, though some really eager narration by a parrot called Polynesia (played by Emma Thompson) attempts to rationalize every storytelling disparity.
The tale she’s entrusted with justifying is as follows: Dolittle, a gruff male with a failing Welsh accent (one of a number of baffling efficiency options by Downey Jr.), is prepared into service by 2 plucky kids called Tommy (Harry Collett) and Woman Rose (Carmel Laniado). His mission, you see, is to conserve Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who has fallen into a coma, perhaps because she’s being poisoned by her aides-de-camp Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen) and Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent). The only way to revive Her Majesty is to recover a wonderful fruit from a concealed kingdom. The treacherous journey requires the involvement of almost all of Dolittle’s furry friends, including an ornery polar bear (John Cena), a wisecracking ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), and an afraid gorilla (Rami Malek).
The occasions in the above paragraph may seem like feverish ramblings. In truth, they are the components of a narrative so bowdlerized, only a boardroom of studio executives might have created it. Any emotional through line that was originally meant for this movie has actually long considering that vanished, although there are vestigial tips of a more sensical character arc including Dolittle’s withdrawal from society and his efforts to reconstruct both his own mental health and the well-being of his animal patients. A minimum of, that’s the only explanation I can think of for a scene in which a gorilla called Chee-Chee covers his confront with his hands and screams, “I am not a detainee to fear!”
I can understand why such a task caused enough studio panic to prompt reshoots; those pensive moments in Dolittle might never ever have actually worked and certainly stick out here. Yet the lighter product is even more bewildering; the movie is basically one and a half hours of star voice-overs discovering various methods to say, “That’s got ta hurt!” Characters appear and vanish from the action with no description; at one point, Dolittle and company are invited aboard a brand-new boat by a bearded male who reveals “I’m Jeff!” and is never seen or discussed again. Somehow, the supporting cast of humans emerges mainly untouched– Antonio Banderas is an engaging pirate king, Shine a hilariously preening villain. That hardly matters in a film where 90 percent of the discussion consists of bargain-basement comedy zingers provided by ducks and squirrels.
Then there’s Downey Jr., who hasn’t appeared in a non-Marvel film given that 2014’s The Judge To shake off his past years of work as the cherished Tony Stark, he has decided on an efficiency that can just be referred to as anti-charming; he’s more of a collection of tics and grunts than a human being. His Welsh accent is unreasonable– when it’s audible. More often than not, Downey Jr. looks bored, unamused by the CGI shenanigans swirling around him, and even less interested in whatever lightweight action he’s supposed to be driving forward. He might be able to talk to the animals, but the good medical professional should have spoken with a competent film writer, or perhaps simply to his representative, prior to getting embroiled in a mess like this one.
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David Sims is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers culture.