Originally titled The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, the simplified family comedy Dolittle stars Robert Downey Jr. as the acclaimed veterinarian who can miraculously speak to animals. Hugh Lofting created the character during World War I in illustrated letters to his children, but his second book is what truly launched the character to massive fame, leading to the inspiration for this latest cinematic reboot, from director and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (who was later replaced with director Jonathan Liebesman with Chris McKay overseeing rewrites).
Similar to the book, Dolittle is clearly intended to capture the imaginations of young children, with a large cast of comedic animals who serve as the good doctor’s entourage. In fact, there are probably more recognizable voice actors in Dolittle than there are laughs, which is telling considering the sheer volume of jokes lobbed at the audience from moment to moment.
The structure of the film is at least easy to follow and theoretically favorable to enjoy. We learn in an extended animated intro—oddly enough, the film’s true highlight—that the once-famous Doctor Dolittle has secluded himself in his mansion after the death of his beloved wife, only to surround himself with decisively non-human friends, which include a macaw (Emma Thompson) who serves as his conscience, a hyper-sensitive gorilla (Rami Malek), a blundering polar bear (John Cena), a wacky duck (Octavia Spencer), a whip-smart dog (Tom Holland), and too many other characters to concisely mention.
So it’s baffling to see even more characters added to the mix as soon as Dolittle finishes introducing its already stuffed cast. It really is a film that does too much, as it’s in search of filling every gap of storytelling someone could possibly raise as a missed opportunity. There are branched storylines involving a would-be apprentice, a revenge-seeking squirrel, and even a plot to murder the Queen of England. Oh, and a fire-breathing dragon in case the kids are still too bored.
Sadly, this description likely makes Dolittle sound more entertaining than it actually is. But this is the type of film where so much is happening, nothing ever feels alive. The plasticky CGI animals strain belief, and not even Downey Jr. himself appears to be real, as his voice sounds like it was dubbed in post-production. Additionally, the film is clearly over-edited to punch up the runtime with extra jokes in reaction to what must have been dismal test screenings, as Dolittle was originally slated for a spring release in 2019.
Despite its staggering $175 million budget, Dolittle looks like a movie held together with rubber bands and tape, which extends to the manic writing and deranged storytelling elements, including a cringe-inducing series of gross-out gags all throughout and a strikingly unpleasant energy exuding from Downey Jr. whenever he’s onscreen. For that reason, Dolittle suffers the same fate as the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie that tried to center its entire plot around Jack Sparrow. On that note, it’s odd to see Downey Jr. going from the box office heights of Avengers: Endgame to a rushed January release in less than a year, but it should be noted this is a passion project he freely chose in the wake of finishing Hollywood’s most financially successful film franchise of all time. Now onto what might become one of Hollywood’s biggest box office bombs of recent memory.
It’s easy to sympathize with the challenge these filmmakers faced when attempting to reboot this story for a generation seemingly uninterested in fast-talking animals and old-fashioned adventures. But unlike the book, which balances its light tone with an even-handed maturity, Dolittle is clearly trying too hard to win the affection of its young audience. It’s possible some children will find this rapidly-paced jolt to the senses appealing enough to sit through a few times, but then almost entirely forget about its existence until revisiting the film years later, wondering why they ever liked it in the first place. For most adults watching the film for whatever reason, this material is do-little, too late.