Robert Downey Jr.’s first post-Marvel film is awful, but not in a so-bad-it’s-good way
DOLITTLE (Stephen Gaghan). 106 minutes. Opens Friday (January 17). See listing. Rating: NN
Robert Downey Jr. takes his first shaky steps out of Marvel’s stable in Stephen Gaghan’s long-delayed Dolittle. The former superhero in search of his next golden goose looks listless in a seafaring adventure that plays less like a franchise starter than the sad fulfilment of a star’s contractual obligation.
Like Richard Fleischer’s 1967 adaptation starring Rex Harrison in the title role, Gaghan’s adaptation maintains the Victorian setting of Hugh Lofting’s children’s novels – unlike the Eddie Murphy adaptations, which dragged the veterinarian who can talk to animals into modern times.
This Dolittle begins in self-imposed exile following his wife’s death at sea, relayed in a lyrical animated prologue that summarizes his days of travelling the world and giving winter hats to all the chilly polar bears who need them. The semi-retired doctor spends the days that follow growing an off-season beard (where mice hide) and playing card games with his neurotic gorilla friend Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) and a stable of other animal compatriots voiced by cash-strapped luminaries such as Octavia Spencer and Marion Cotillard.
He’s only shaken out of his sleepy sabbatical by the arrival of an insistent would-be apprentice named Stubbins (Harry Collett), and a young royal who comes with a request for aid from a poisoned Queen Victoria – a task that, should he accept it, will take him to the fateful waters where his wife met her end.
Dolittle is sure to follow in Fleischer’s film’s footsteps as an overpriced, troubled production for rubbernecking audiences to gawk at. Gaghan’s directorial vision was reportedly diluted in studio-mandated reshoots after disastrous early screenings. Rumours from the production also had it that Gaghan, famous for grim political dramas such as Traffic and Syriana, rather than family films, struggled to strike a comic tone and incorporate his beastly animated cast.
True or false, Gaghan’s greenness shows in the dour early moments. Downey seems stranded in the baroque set of Dolittle’s abandoned animal hospital, testing out an unconvincing Scottish brogue and enduring stilted slapstick pratfalls opposite a cast of CG co-stars who never seem to be sharing the same space with him.
Yet those seeking a Cats-like instant anti-classic will surely be disappointed by the largely grey colour palette, thinly sketched palace intrigue and sombre tone. They may also be frustrated by the way Gaghan and company use Emma Thompson’s chattering parrot sidekick Polynesia as narrative drywall, her occasional voice-over plastering over confusing set pieces that move our characters across the map.
Though its production history and delays might suggest a proper disaster, Dolittle is mostly just a bore. It’s too far from the annals of both so-bad-it’s-good studio duds and the more buoyant, Johnny Depp-anchored Gore Verbinski adventure tales it resembles, down to its star’s eyewear and woozy body language, to register as anything more than the quintessential January movie – sheepishly leaked into the world.