History is doomed to repeat itself and “Dolittle,” the latest Hollywood remake, based on 20th Century Fox’s “Doctor Dolittle,” hasn’t learned from its mistakes. Richard Fleischer‘s 1967 musical iteration failed both critically and financially, and Eddie Murphy‘s miserable film series in the ‘90s didn’t do much better. So, it’s hard to conceive—if the fundamental idea is broken—why now, the third time might be the charm, even if the title character is played by the charismatic Robert Downey Jr. His Dolittle still has the power to talk to animals. When he wants to take off his coat, birds do it for him. When he wants his morning coffee, an ape brings it to him. But this vivaciously loquacious character can’t talk his way out of a bad movie that will do nothing for most audiences.
That’s because director and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana,” “Traffic“)—usually a smart, prestige-drama writer/director, and the absolutely oddest choice to direct this broad CGI-laden family film— doesn’t bring anything new to the fable (did he lose a bet? Is he deep in hock??). Dolittle is a hermit sheltered in his nature preserve. He’s getting over the loss of his wife the only way he knows how: hiding, crying and growing out a beard the size of the Amazon Jungle. Until one day an adventurous young man, Stubbins (Harry Collett), and a dutiful young woman, Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), stumble through a wall of overgrown vines and enter the Eden-like preserve. The birds chirp their morning song. Animals frolic in the fields. A polar bear is devouring blueberries in a bush. You can almost hear Edvard Grieg’s “Morning” playing in the background. Why would anyone want to leave?
Dolittle surely doesn’t want to go. But Queen Victoria (a criminally underused Jessie Buckley) is sick, and Lady Rose has beckoned for his assistance. Blah, blah, long story short, he discovers that the Queen has been poisoned. So, he reluctantly embarks on a swashbuckling voyage to find a rare cure.
Kids will lose themselves on the journey. Thanks to a lion’s share of talking animals, all of whom are voiced by celebrity A-listers, some of these wild creatures will find themselves as toys on children’s shelves. Tom Holland, Rami Malek, John Cena, Emma Thompson, Craig Robinson, Salena Gomez, Ralph Fiennes, Octavia Spencer, Marion Cotillard and Kumail Nanjiani all lend their voices to the production. Some get more shine than others. Cena’s polar bear and Thompson’s parrot are memorable. Others say a few lines and collect their paychecks. Less amusing are the humans.
Downey turns Hugh Lofting’s lovable Dolittle into a bumbling buffoon. It would have been nice to see the character do more to prove his label of “genius” among the British aristocrats (Michael Sheen‘s scheming villain among them). And the actor’s sketchy accent doesn’t help the character’s case. Is it Scottish or Irish? Audience members will have other questions about the production, too. Why are Rose and Stubbins repeating everything that’s already happening on screen? Are they playing parrots? What is Antonio Banderas doing here as a pirate? Did we really need to see Dolittle pull a bagpipe out of a dragon’s butt? It’s all kind of interminable dull nonsense, honestly.
The jokes from screenwriters Dan Gregor and Doug Mand reek with juvenile humor—a tiger is getting kicked in the crotch, a dog wipes its arse on the floor. Tellingly, the most exciting sequences are mercifully dialogue-free. A Giraffe chase scene entertains, and a police-on-horseback chase through the cobblestone streets of Britain also has its brief charms. A scene in phosphorescent caves where an incandescent dragon guards a healing tree is really something to behold too. But right on schedule, the scene is punctuated and eventually ruined by gross-out humor.
It’s a shame because escapist adventure could be a nice reprieve from the hellscape of the world if orchestrated well (but whose choice was it to hire Gaghan for this??) If you’re not asking for much, enjoying the company of silly animals and witnessing their outrageous actions could have been mildly diverting in theory. But “Dolittle” isn’t remotely enjoyable escapist fare. It’s a dull, plodding retread with new souped-up VFX that’s deeply uninvolving. And after three studio bombs and a menagerie of poop jokes that reek to high heaven, it just might be time for a “Dolittle” mercy killing, and finally putting the uninspired franchise out of its miserable existence. [C-]