In one way or another, the movie Dolittle broke me. Coming home from the theater and sitting down to write this review, my mind still cannot think clearly after witnessing a film that my eyes actively rejected. Robert Downey Jr., coming off of his triumphant tenure as Iron Man in the Marvel films, leads an all star cast—a cast which includes Antonio Banderas, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Ralph Fiennes, Jim Broadbent, and Octavia Spencer, among many others—in what can only be described by technical definitions as cinema.
It might be important to note that the 1967 Doctor Dolittle, which starred Rex Harrison and was made with a lofty budget, was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and won in two other categories (despite how atrocious it is). It might be just as important to note that the 1998 Eddie Murphy-starring Doctor Dolittle was a runaway financial success that spawned a theatrical sequel and three direct to video sequels. My brain, in its post-Dolittle state, cannot adequately suss out how this context is important, but perhaps it is.
Dolittle is a film rife with incident, but none of this incident is compelling, and none of it is competently shot or staged. Ghastly CG animals whizz by on the screen, running around and barking out markedly unfunny ADR lines as the film pretends to present a globetrotting adventure.
The main plot of the film revolves around the Queen, who is gravely ill and can only be saved by the magical fruit of the Eden tree. Dolittle, for some reason, is tasked with finding this fruit, which he claims must be given to the Queen before the solar eclipse, or she will surely perish (how he comes to this conclusion, and many other conclusions he makes in the film, is never readily made clear). Along the way, Dolittle boxes a gorilla, has a bird trim his sideburns with its beak, and gives digestive relief to a fiery dragon. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Along for the ride is the young Stubbins (Harry Collett), who wishes to become Dolittle’s apprentice. Dolittle, initially resigned to the Palace’s orders that he bring Stubbins along, soon comes to see himself in the young lad. Oh, and we are introduced to the kid when he shoots a squirrel, which is quite the unsettling inciting incident for a children’s adventure picture.
Dolittle has this framework of a plot, but the bulk of it is comprised of loud, incoherent set pieces in which the frame is filled with loud, incoherent animals. And Downey Jr.’s performance, which is necessary to provide some amount of grounding to this baffling spectacle, is ruined by his choice to give the doctor an unplaceable accent. In the quiet moments when the script is attempting some amount of emotional follow through, Downey’s quiet delivery and that accent make his lines nearly incomprehensible.
There is some fun to Michael Sheen’s incompetent villain character, I guess, and Jessie Buckley pops up for an egregiously underserving role. Beyond this, the acting is headache-inducing. The voice acting is over-the-top and grating, and the lines the actors are given to speak don’t make it any more tolerable.
It is difficult to put into words just how bad Dolittle is. The experience of watching the film in a theater is mind-numbing, and the film reaches a point where it is almost impossible to decipher the visual stimuli that is going through your optic nerve. Let’s just say that this very well might be the single worst movie I’ve ever seen in a theater. And I saw The Emoji Movie in a theater.
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Check out my page on Letterboxd, where I transcribed my screening notes for Dolittle. If you want to read about me descending into insanity in real time, that’s where you’ll find it.
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)