The fact that Robert Downey Jr.’s new family movie is called Dolittle implies the “Doctor” is out. Perhaps then it is hoped we will mistake this as a new kind of origin story for the man who spent the last decade as Iron Man? Then again, Eddie Murphy’s 1998 take on the source material tackled that journey of becoming. Instead Downey’s healer-turned-hermit is just another malcontent who’s abandoned his title and its responsibilities, at least with regard to humans, and must spend this movie learning to reaccept his place in the world with the help of his animal family. Unfortunately, unlike the good doctor, you would be better off staying home.
As Dolittle is a movie for children, the audience proxies are two younguns who stumble into overgrown Dolittle Manor, seemingly abandoned after the doctor with the knack for talking to animals shut himself away. Why? Because his badass explorer wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak) has been summarily fridged before the opening narration is concluded by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson). Lost at sea, the wife’s death compels Dolittle to cut himself off from the outside world so that humans cannot hurt him any more than they already have.
Enter two fresh-faced youngsters with complementary motivations: Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) is here to fetch Dolittle so he can save Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) on her deathbed; Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) is a surrogate son for Dolittle who wants to trade in his shotgun for language lessons from the good doctor. But lest you think that Dolittle takes either kid seriously out of the goodness of his heart, the deed to Dolittle Manor is tied up in the Queen’s lifespan; to keep the house he must save the Queen, which requires sailing to a distant island and discovering the Eden Tree that Lily gave her life trying to find. Hence, after much grousing and trying to sail away without Stubbins, Dolittle is finally off and lets the kid tag along.
More important than these human elements though are Dolitte’s menagerie of animals, who occupy a curious mix of patients and peers. Some, like Polly and wizened pup Jip (voiced by Tom Holland) are Dolittle’s confidantes and counselors appealing to his best self. Others are works in progress, like neurotic gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), with his mantra of “I am not a prisoner of fear;” manic ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani); and polar bear bro Yoshi (John Cena), who’s afraid of the dark.
The best way to date a Doctor Dolittle adaptation is in how the animals talk, from their contemporary slang to what’s generating their ennui. Alas, all that’s here is a preponderance of juvenile jokes about kneeing crotches and letting loose some flatulence. These furred and feathered misfits, with their dire need of therapy over any other physical attention, could have starred in their own story about animals finding empathy in their doctor, who in turn rediscovers his humanity through their struggles. But because that wouldn’t hold kids’ attention as long as a frenetic sea voyage adventure, they all play mouthy sidekick to Dolittle and Stubbins versus Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), chasing them to the Eden Tree for his own nefarious and ultimately petty purposes.
Targeted as this is for the kiddos, one has to wonder just how shrewdly everyone involved (including Downey and wife Susan Downey as producers) considered the message they were sending. Was the intention to draw kids in with Tony Stark’s familiar magnetism, then make it clear—via a bizarrely whispery Welsh accent—that nope, sorry sprouts, Tony’s still dead? This clearly isn’t the start of a new franchise. Perhaps it’s more of a palate cleanser?
For a movie whose primary audience is more impressionable than most moviegoers, Dolittle is rather irresponsibly one-sided in its depiction of who gets to be adventurers. Between Lily’s death and the Queen bedridden, the movie makes it rather clear that boys are the ones who go out on epic quests while girls wait or get cut out of the action.
There was no reason for the character of Lady Rose to exist other than as a frilly messenger; the screenwriters could have made Rose be Dolitte’s aspiring apprentice and a figurative reincarnation of Lily’s brave spirit. Instead she cries over her mother’s bedside and dreads potentially taking the throne like a good little child queen—but of course there are no stakes to this succession plotline, because Dolittle will do all he can to come through in the end. Even if that means a detour to an indistinctly ethnic island ruled by King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas, having more fun in eyeliner and growls than Downey or us).
Like Downey switching languages for each species, the movie wants to be a half-dozen different stories and instead merely approaches a cacophonous din. The core message is we belong together, which is ironic considering what a jumble this is. It’s clear that Downey wanted to try something immediately different following Avengers: Endgame, yet Dolittle feels close enough to his Sherlock Holmes that one almost wishes he had just fallen back on that persona as a transitional role. Or, failing that, have chosen a role that was actually worthy of him.