Robert Downey Jr. knows a thing or two about defying expectations. It can be hard to remember in the aftermath of “Avengers,” but the decision to cast him as the goateed face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was something of a head-scratcher before “Iron Man” was forged into the world-eating mega-franchise that reshaped all of moviedom in its image. So if you’re wondering why Downey agreed to star in and produce an $175 million kids movie written and directed by the man behind winsome family entertainment like “Traffic” and “Syriana”…well, maybe Downey knows that some people just need the chance to be seen in a different light.
Sadly, this isn’t the right hue for Stephen Gaghan. A divertingly crazed riff on literature’s most lovable veterinarian — albeit one that cleaves a bit closer to the dyspeptic spirit and Victorian setting of Hugh Lofting’s stories than the Eddie Murphy version ever did — Gaghan’s “Dolittle” has been assembled with all the natural ease and comfort of Abel Ferrara directing “Kung Fu Panda 4.”
Then again, referring to it as “Gaghan’s ‘Dolittle’” might be a stretch considering how much of the movie was reshot by “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” director Jonathan Liebesman after test screening audiences — primed for an all-ages adventure about a kooky doctor who can talk to animals — rejected the seriousness of Gaghan’s cut. Paralyzing grief! Attempted regicide! A homicidal squirrel who’s determined to get revenge on the human teenager who shot him in the chest! And that’s just the stuff that couldn’t be fixed in post (to say nothing of Gaghan’s still-palpable struggles to construct a legible scene around computer-generated characters).
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Even the manic, sugar-coated final cut that Universal frankensteined together feels lost somewhere between “Madagascar” and “Syriana,” down to the convoluted plot about a Western power stealing resources from an exotic foreign land. The studio did its best to taxidermy this mess into something presentable, but it’s hard to make a Doctor Dolittle movie if you can’t even understand the parable of the scorpion and the frog.
Which isn’t to say that “Dolittle” lacks charm. Parents will appreciate that it’s too hyper for their kids to get bored, and too disposable for them to want to see it again — or that Gaghan is solely responsible for the general musk of chaos this movie keeps asking you to ignore. Downey, stretching his wings in the role of a rich and tortured genius who wears godawful tinted sunglasses and spends most of his time talking to non-human companions about the ethics of using his abilities to help people, delivers a fidgety, impenetrable performance that makes you wish his Dolittle had done a lot less.
He’s already a shambles when the film’s storybook prologue first introduces us to him, as the gifted doctor has lost his wife and locked himself away in the Puddleby-on-the-Marsh estate where he lives with his menagerie of animal friends. There’s a devoted parrot named Polynesia (Emma Thompson), a forgetful one-footed duck named Dab-Dab (a genuinely funny Octavia Spencer), short-sighted dog called Jip (Downey comfort animal Tom Holland), a nervous mountain gorilla (Rami Malek, whose flat intensity should make him think twice about future voice work), Selena Gomez as a giraffe without any identifying characteristics whatsoever, and Marion Cotillard as a French-accented fox named Tutu — who the press notes identify as the leader of “The Fox Resistance,” whatever that is. Most of the creatures in this movie are defined by the anxieties that Dolittle helps them to overcome, but Tutu is apparently involved in an off-screen revolution of some kind. Why not? Justice for the foxes.
The playful vibe between such unusual housemates speaks to the core joys of the source material, and tickles the imagination as much as anything can in a destabilized movie that’s almost entirely composed of cartoonish animal reaction shots. Just don’t think too hard about how any of these creatures can understand each other, let alone the semi-intelligible Welsh grumble that Downey uses to emphasize Dolittle’s outsider status — everything is lost in translation save for the unbridled energy that pushes the story forward.
The film is in such a hurry to get started that Dolittle rides an ostrich (a droll Kumail Nanjiani) to Buckingham Palace, where Queen Victoria is dying and not even the fact that she’s played by her royal highness Jessie Buckley can save her. The only thing that might do the trick: Sap from the mythic tree that Dolittle’s wife was researching when she died. Our reluctant hero will have to voyage to both of the other locations that weren’t cut out during reshoots, and he’ll have to get there before the chinless doctor Müdfly (a delicious Michael Sheen, making a glorious meal out of table scraps) is able to find the magic whatsit for himself. Jim Broadbent also pops up as a conniving lord, and — oh yeah — the entire plot is motivated by a pair of fresh-faced tweens (Harry Collett and Carmel Laniado) who are so lost in the limbo between cuts that they become both the worst victims of the film’s production woes, as well as the most damning evidence that something went very wrong behind the scenes.
The central human characters were relegated to the sidelines as soon as the studio realized this thing didn’t have franchise potential, leaving Liebesman to lean on mild antics, more animals, and any dignified movie’s ultimate ace in the hole: Oscar nominee Antonio Banderas as a bling-obsessed pirate king! He doesn’t have any memorable lines, but he does have a man-eating tiger who sounds like Ralph Fiennes and suffers from indecipherable mommy issues. By the time Jason Mantzoukas shows up as a horny dragonfly, it’s hard not to just let your eyes just glaze over and go along for the ride. Unambiguous train wrecks are seldom this survivable.
There’s barely enough usable footage to stretch the story past 90 minutes, but the CGI creature effects — rich with personality — manage to find the rare sweet spot between photorealism and exaggeration. The fiasco’s exorbitant price tag suggests precious little threat of a sequel. You could argue that it’s strange to watch a massive Hollywood movie in which every single line seems to have been dubbed after the fact, or you could enjoy the rare opportunity to watch a first-run film that comes with its own “Mystery Science Theater 3000” commentary track. You could lament hiring Stephen Gaghan to direct something that Universal Studios clearly wanted to play like a theme park ride, or you could just sit back and be grateful that you’re not watching “The Lion King.” Some people aren’t suited for the opportunities that are presented to them, but — at least in its own chimeric way — no one can say that “Dolittle” fails to defy expectations.
Universal Studios will release “Dolittle” in theaters on January 17.