Robert Downey Jr. mugging at his hat in Dolittle.


Dept. of Indifferent Accents


There is this surreal moment in the original 1967 adaptation of Dr. Dolittle. In it, Rex Harrison brings all of his acting prowess to bear as he stares deeply into the eyes of a seal named Sophie and sings of their love and the sweet sorrow of their parting. He then picks up Sophie, who happens to be dressed like Anne of Green Gables – straw hat, plaid dress, and all – laments the fact that she’s a seal, plants a full-on kiss on her lips, and tosses her over a cliff into the ocean. 

It was the most bizarre thing I had even seen on film. At least until I saw Robert Downey Jr. stick his hand up a dragon’s ass. Yes. You heard me. Robert Downey Jr., arguably the world’s biggest movie star, spends the final moments of this 175-million-dollar movie rooting around the anal cavity of a dragon.

This movie isn’t terrible. This isn’t Cats. Or The Emoji Movie. This isn’t a cinematic travesty. Not quite. Dolittle is a missed opportunity. It is wasted promise. With the sheer amount of talent on screen, with all of the technology now available, Dolittle could have been the next big thing. It should have been a smart and savvy family movie with tremendous franchise potential. It should have been a great live-action children’s movie, full of action and adventure, couth and wit. It is instead about three rewrites short of Spy Kids.

The movie begins, like these things often do, with an extended animated sequence that provides both prologue and context to the audience. Dolittle is a man who is alone and grieving for his long-lost love. He lives a reclusive life in his stately manor, surrounded by his beloved animals, and shunning all human contact. He feels that to be a part of humanity is to be let-down by humanity. Cue exuberant and precocious young sidekicks who serve to remind our hero of the worth of the world.

The arc of this movie is a tragically simple one. It is the prototypical Hero’s Journey. Our hero sets out on an adventure, faces a crisis, wins a victory, and comes home transformed. The problem here is that there is very little that is heroic about Dolittle. There is so little agency to his character that all he does throughout the movie is get dragged from pillar to post by a group of much smarter and more self-aware animals.

RDJ's Dolittle consults Tom Holland's Jip in the movie Dolittle.

When you think about it, Robert Downey Jr. really is the perfect choice to play the role of an eccentric doctor who forsakes humanity in favour of animals. It’s a no-brainer. He has a manic energy that lends itself to such endeavours. Landing in that safe space between the theatricality of Johnny Depp and the sheer hysteria of Nicholas Cage, Downey Jr. has successfully managed, over the course of his career, to scale that energy according to the part he’s playing. Whether it’s a genius-billionaire-playboy-inventor, or a blackfaced method actor, or the world’s greatest detective (Sherlock Holmes, not Batman).

But something went very wrong here. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is altogether charmless and his accent (good God, his accent!) veers wildly from scene to scene. He incoherently mumbles most of his dialogue to one side of the frame. His eye-line barely matches that of his CGI co-stars. And the director makes a point to consistently cut the camera away from his face. Something made all the more apparent given that he is one of only two actual humans on screen for most of the movie’s runtime. It happens so often, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder if the only way the studio felt it could save this movie was to show us more cutesy fun animals.

And yet, it feels like the reason for this failure isn’t in the casting of the movie but rather in how mismatched the director was for this project. There are far too many examples of directors taking on work that they are ultimately unsuited for. Think Ava DuVernay. Think Lasse Hallström. Think Eli Roth. Imagine what Aladdin would have been like if it was John Carney directing in place of Guy Ritchie. Dolittle is no different. Stephen Gaghan may have won an Oscar for writing Traffic, but this kind of family fare is so far outside his wheelhouse that he is unable to grasp the ebb and flow of the material.

Given what we’re hearing now, it seems like the only way to explain the muddled mess we’re seeing on screen is by looking at the studio’s attempts at rejigging the movie. While Gaghan remains the sole credited director, the movie reportedly underwent extensive reshoots under the guidance of director Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and writer Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie). Such efforts are always last-ditch, and it is rare that the final product doesn’t end up being a mishmash of creative conflicts, financial compromise, and bad decisions.

Antonio Banderas as Rassouli mugging for the camera in the movie Dolittle.

The original Dr. Dolittle was an absolute disaster. From production woes that ballooned the movie’s budget to three times its original six-million-dollar cost, to famed British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes attempting to blow up the set using military grade explosives, the film pretty much ruined Rex Harrison’s movie career and almost bankrupted Fox. While this movie isn’t likely to have that kind of impact on either Robert Downey Jr. or Universal, it is, however, a stunning example of how such colossal missteps can still happen in this day and age. 

This is a movie that your two-year-old, unable yet to grasp the mechanics of language and plot, might find fascinating. Any older, and I fear your child might end up dumber for having watched it.

This movie isn’t terrible. Indifferent performances, an intellectually undemanding script, and CGI filler just make it really disappointing. On the bright side, Dolittle is likely the only movie in this year – or in any year for that matter – in which you can watch an A-list Hollywood star stick his hand up a dragon’s ass. 

101 minutes
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Writers: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, and Chris McKay
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, and Marion Cotillard

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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