Somewhere on some studio hard drive may exist a version of Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle that preserves the director’s original vision, but it’s hard to imagine it could be worse than the disjointed, hastily pasted-together version that’s being released in theaters. Gaghan, who previously directed serious dramas like Syriana and Gold, seems like an odd choice to helm a big-budget effects-driven franchise-starter, and he was replaced by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman for extensive reshoots on the much-delayed film. The end result feels like it was awkwardly constructed from multiple conflicting approaches to the material, barely connected by extensive, exposition-heavy voiceover from Emma Thompson as the title character’s parrot companion.
Based loosely on Hugh Lofting’s classic (and frequently adapted) series of novels about a doctor who can talk to animals, Dolittle is set in 19th-century England and stars Robert Downey Jr. as Dr. John Dolittle, who has shut himself away in his animal-filled estate following the death of his explorer wife Lily. Dolittle’s entire back story is explained in an opening animated sequence narrated by Thompson as the parrot Poly, a tacked-on bit that dispatches with poor Lily in a few rushed lines. Now a heavily bearded recluse, Dolittle is shaken from his solitude by two kids: The sweet Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a gentle boy nursing an injured squirrel; and the regal Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who has been sent to summon Dolittle to the bedside of a deathly ill Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley, spending most of the movie unconscious).
The entire Rose/Victoria subplot feels like a vestige of a previous iteration of the movie, although it provides Dolittle with the motivation to set out on a perilous sea journey to find a cure for the poisoned queen. Tommy and Rose are set up as potential friends and love interests, but Rose then disappears for most of the movie as Tommy joins Dolittle on his voyage across the sea. Character motivations are introduced and then dropped haphazardly, with Dolittle first roused by a threat to his estate that’s then never brought up again. The narrative lurches abruptly from one plot point to another, with what feels like substantial chunks missing at various points. When Dolittle and his crew arrive at an island kingdom to retrieve Lily’s journal, Poly’s voiceover frantically recaps a bunch of events that viewers never see, over snippets from scenes that have clearly been cut out. Later on, the animals discover a human prisoner left behind on their borrowed ship, and then he’s literally never seen or even mentioned again.
Not only is the plot a chaotic mess, but the rest of the writing is also terrible, full of unfunny jokes with anachronistic slang and pop-culture references. The big comedic set piece in the climax involves Dolittle pulling various objects (suits of armor, bagpipes) out of a dragon’s butthole. Downey (who’s also an executive producer) gives one of his worst performances, sporting a wandering accent somewhere between Scottish and Swedish, as a character who seems to be emulating Captain Jack Sparrow as much as any previous version of Dr. Dolittle (including the two most famous portrayals, by Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy). The celebrities voicing Dolittle’s animal companions mostly sound bored, and the young stars are bland and marginalized. Michael Sheen goes broad as the movie’s villain, a former rival of Dolittle’s, but the live-action actors are overpowered by the garish, ugly CGI.
Aiming for the kind of wide-appeal, family-friendly adventure of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies but ending up closer to the B-movie dreck of Liebesman’s Wrath of the Titans or a direct-to-video movie based on public domain material, Dolittle isn’t really a kids’ movie but isn’t nearly sophisticated enough to appeal to even mildly discerning adults. The inevitable documentary about the behind-the-scenes turmoil will be much more entertaining, and much more coherent, too.