A man in a stockade screaming, “I’M JEFF!” is just one of the many discordant moments that the 2020 Dr. Dolittle reboot Dolittle tries to pass off as a joke. Who is Jeff? Why has he been imprisoned? Why is he introduced as though he were going to be a significant character and then never heard from again? None of the answers matter, because Dolittle has already moved on to the next set of would-be laughs. Though the film centers on the veterinarian from Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s books, it feels more like it’s been tended to by an aggressive taxidermist, chopped into bits and assembled into a shape that barely makes sense.
In his first post-Marvel role, Robert Downey Jr. stars as Dr. Dolittle, a man capable of conversing with animals. Though he’s shunned human society ever since his wife died at sea years ago, he’s prompted to return by the threat that he might lose the estate where he lives, granted to him by Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). Her health is failing due to a mysterious illness, and her death would evict Dolittle and condemn the animals he cares for to life in a zoo. Only a mythical fruit can cure her, so off Dolittle goes to fetch it, along with his newly appointed apprentice, Stubbins (Harry Collett).
That story, however, is secondary to animals wisecracking. They’re constantly cranking out jokes — fart jokes, burp jokes, dick jokes, “bro” jokes, a full minute of a duck mistaking various vegetables for forceps — to the point where there’s barely room for any narrative motion. An entire heist sequence occurs via voice-over rather than actually playing out, and several supposedly arduous journeys are missing entirely. Characters go from one place to the next with no explanation and no second thought, and even single scenes play out as if someone attacked the reel of film with a pair of scissors.
Dolittle’s “Jeff” logic often makes the film feel like an extended trailer. Trailers are meant to offer enough of a sense of a movie to entice viewers, and they typically stitch together unrelated bits of footage and pack in jokes for two to three minutes. Dolittle stretches that principle out for 106 minutes with disastrous results, barely holding onto a sense of coherence. It’s stuffed to the gills with one-liners delivered by CGI animals whose mouths barely sync up with what they’re saying.
Even Downey Jr.’s performance fails to connect. Sporting a half-hearted Welsh accent, he’s halfway between Jack Sparrow and Tony Stark, and he fails to land either. It’s difficult to blame him, though, as he’s often acting against thin air, and what character development Dolittle might have gone through (there’s a story about overcoming grief somewhere in there) is trampled to death by his animal companions. Collett gets similarly lost, as Stubbins has no real personality traits beyond being younger than Dolittle.
The animal performances have a little more character, though they’re wildly uneven. On a visual level, some of the film’s beasts are rendered realistically, while others (notably a dragonfly voiced by Jason Mantzoukas) look more like cartoons. In terms of the vocal performances, some are simply glorified cameos. For instance, Marion Cotillard voices a fox who gets just a few lines, and one of them is, “Vive la résistance,” for no apparent reason other than that Cotillard is French. Other roles are more substantial, such as Tom Holland’s turn as a studious dog, a part that doesn’t wink at his celebrity or nationality. A few fall in between: Craig Robinson plays a revenge-obsessed squirrel, and while it’s compelling acting, he’s so isolated from the rest of the action that he feels as though he was added in post-production.
Only one of the human characters emerges from this mess completely unscathed. As the scheming Blair Müdfly, Michael Sheen is the one element of Dolittle that actually connects, in part because his performance is tuned into the ridiculousness of everything around him. Müdfly is one of the conspirators seeking to remove the Queen from power, and Sheen plays him like a live-action Snidely Whiplash, whereas Downey Jr. and Collett take themselves a little too seriously. Dolittle is constantly called a smart aleck, but the laughs from his lines never come; Downey Jr. is practically sleepwalking through the whole movie, which takes Dolittle from a roguish rebel to a boring milquetoast.
Every other aspect of the movie suffers from a sense of disconnect, including the locations: the building used to stand in for “Buckingham Palace” bears so little resemblance to the actual place that it’s comical. Dolittle is the result of the kind of taxidermy that gave us jackalopes. Huge chunks of the animal are missing, and other bits and pieces have been superimposed in a way that doesn’t make sense. But there’s one key difference between Dolittle and bad taxidermy: At least bad taxidermy is memorable.
Dolittle opens in theaters on Jan. 17.