Let’s talk about Cats for a minute. The hallucinatory shit show that was unleashed upon the world three weeks ago was immediately seen as a nightmare of cinematic proportions, a disaster of bad ideas and was quickly theorized to become the next Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Cats is better than Dolittle.
At the very least, the weirdness and nonsensical decisions that brought about Cats were enjoyable in a “I can’t believe this exists” sort of way. At some point, one just has to give in and laugh at the sight of Judi Dench as a cat with human hands named Old Deuteronomy stretching out in all her hairy glory.
But there is no such joy in Dolittle.
Dolittle was made with its own set of poor choices and absurd ideas, starting with the fact that this is a children’s film originally written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who previously won an Oscar for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. This might make little sense, yet it all adds up when one realizes that Dolittle is about as fun as watching teenagers overdose. After almost $200 million, extensive reshoots, and various directors and writers brought in to salvage this mess later, the Frankenstein monster that is left is Dolittle.
Dolittle starts off promising, with a gorgeous animated opening that presents the idea that maybe this story would me better as an animated film. This intro explains that Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) was once a great doctor for humans and animals alike. His special ability to speak to animals allowed the Queen to give him his own home and treat his unique patients. When Dolittle’s explorer wife died, Dolittle locked himself in his home with his animal companions and refused to leave or take human patients.
That is before two visitors decide to come see him on the same day. Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) shot a squirrel while hunting with his family and would like the good doctor to save the creature’s life and maybe take Tommy on as an apprentice. In more urgent news, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) has come for Dolittle’s help for the Queen, who has become deathly ill with no one able to figure out what is wrong with her. Learning that if the Queen dies he will lose his home, Dolittle goes to the Queen, believes she might have been poisoned and sets off on a journey with his animals to find the only thing that can save her: the mythical Eden fruit.
Dolittle is almost immediately a chore, from Downey Jr.’s strange Welsh accent and eccentric but still bored performance that makes Dolittle into an even harder-to-understand Captain Jack Sparrow, to the cavalcade of celebrities brought in to voice various animals telling different butt/poop/fart joke variations. What should be a rollicking adventure on the open seas, with a boat full of talking animals for a legendary item quickly becomes a slog of terrible special effects and clearly rerecorded lines. Much of Downey Jr.’s dialogue must have been added in post-post-production, considering how often the camera faces his back, and not even the talking animals’ lines match their creepily moving mouths.
Oddly, Dolittle’s quest for the Eden fruit doesn’t even require talking to animals all that much. They’re mostly there to drop tired one-liners like “That’s gotta hurt!” or “Step away from the light!” Sure, it’s probably safer for Dolittle to explain to a dragon that he’s going to pull a set of bagpipes out of said dragon’s asshole (somehow, actually important to the plot!), but the talking animals feel more like a gimmick than a necessity.
With a cast this massive, there are some performances that do seep through the cracks to make this exercise in tedium more bearable. Octavia Spencer has some decent jokes as the one-legged duck, Dab-Dab, and it’s impossible for Jason Mantzoukas to not pep up any film he’s in, this time as James the Dragonfly, who is heartbroken and suicidal after finding out his ex-girlfriend – an ant – is getting married. But Dolittle’s shining highlight is Michael Sheen as Dr. Blair Müdfly, the nemesis of Dolittle. Sheen continues his tradition started in the Twilight series and Tron: Legacy of realizing just how ridiculous the film he’s in is and going joyfully overboard with every scene.
The sad thing is rebooting Doctor Dolittle isn’t an awful idea. Eddie Murphy’s 1998 version took the central theme of talking to animals and discarded the rest of Hugh Lofting’s original stories in lieu of making a broad comedy, while 1967’s Doctor Dolittle already felt out-of-date and of another time amongst the New Hollywood films sprouting up around it. But this Dolittle is the worst of them all. Dolittle can’t even make its failure ironically funny to watch. Instead, Dolittle is an exhausting grind of a film, a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, with a mishmash of blundered ideas, none of which are done any justice.