Robert Downey Jr. is a respected actor. He played Sherlock Holmes. He starred in David Fincher’s 2007 murder thriller film “Zodiac”. He was the father figure of Marvel Studio’s massively successful shared universe for 11 years. His career working with Marvel came to a close with last year’s smash hit “Avengers: Endgame”. “Dolittle” is his first film in his post-Marvel career. When he pulls a bagpipe out of a dragon’s anus in “Dolittle”, we can only hope he has brighter days ahead.
“Dolittle” is a disastrous retelling of the classic story of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), a man who can communicate with animals. After the queen of England falls ill, he is sent on a perilous journey with his newly appointed apprentice (Harry Collett) and his gang of various animals. His enemy (Simon Pegg) is out to get him for reasons clarified enough to remember.
Out of the film’s overwhelming amount of flaws, the most incurable is the performances. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is comical, risible, ridiculous. Whatever you want to call it. His accent is completely unheard of and inhuman. His mannerisms are over-the-top and excessive. With “Dolittle” Robert Downey Jr. is, unfortunately, beginning to head down the path of being modern-day John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, or Bruce Willis. Once legendary movie stars that now play ridiculous caricatures in straight to video movies.
It is inconceivable how an actor with such talent and prowess as Robert Downey Jr. lacked either the effort or self-awareness to churn out a performance this lousy. If the film gets anything right, his performance is in line with the level of cheesy slop that the rest of the film offers. This lack of consciousness (on both the part of Robert Downey Jr. and the filmmakers) is established from the beginning of the film, when Dr. Dolittle is speaking to his animals. A gorilla grunts at Dolittle. Dolittle begins grunting back. There are no subtitles to explain what they are saying. Robert Downey Jr. is simply acting like a gorilla. Embarrassing is not the proper word. Ashamed is.
We have seen “Dolittle” before. A young person goes on an adventure journey to find a McGuffin with a down-on-his-luck legend who redeems his iconography by the end. This is nothing new to us, and the film either knows this or pretends like it is the first of its kind. Every plot point and story beat in the template of an action-adventure story plays out exactly as expected. The film thinks that Robert Downey Jr. is the star power that carries it to success.
Another reflection of the low effort on display is the visual effects, particularly the animal animation. The producers and filmmakers clearly wanted more star power in the film alongside Robert Downey Jr., however the problem with talking live action animated animals is the uncanny valley. Similarly with last years “The Lion King”, because animals can’t talk, giving them the emotional range of a human feels unnatural, yet it is so present in the film it feels like our fault for being weirded out. Robert Downey Jr. is clearly not acting against anything. This is a film where it is so obvious that it was filmed on a soundstage it begs the question: why not just make an animated film with the same actors?
“Dolittle” is a huge failure and a dangerous step in the wrong direction for Robert Downey Jr. Even with a budget as wildly enormous as 175 million dollars, none of it shows in the film. The film is a worse version of everything it is trying to be, however, what it is trying to be isn’t even clear.