For more than a hundred manic minutes, Dolittle does a lot: The good doctor (Robert Downey Jr.) talks to octopuses and gives CPR to a squirrel; sails high seas, breaks into Buckingham Palace, and performs some kind of emergency gastric surgery on a dragon too fond of swallowing knights. (All that armor can perforate a bowel, apparently.)
Writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s adaptation of the classic children’s books pulls out every furred and feathered stop, and finds a fitting-enough star in Downey — who turns in a restrained, surprisingly un-Downey-esque performance, muted almost to the point of melancholy. (His Welsh accent is perhaps more festive, though it wends its own strange journey in the film, occasionally veering into something sort of…Jamaican?).
The movie’s supporting CG-animal cast, too, is almost absurdly stacked with motley Hollywood: Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Ralph Fiennes, Tom Holland, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, John Cena. Some, inevitably, get much more to do than others: Thompson as the wise parrot, Poly; Fiennes as a malevolent Scar-like tiger incongruously named Barry; and Cena and Kumail Nanjani as, respectively, a cold-phobic polar bear and anxiety-prone ostrich.
They work hard to fill the screen with shenanigans, as do the supporting actors who appear in human form, including Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, and a glowering, kohl-eyed Antonio Banderas. But the film is so eager to please, so relentlessly quippy and quirky and tipped with antic whimsy, it often feels like visiting a zoo built into a Tilt-A-Whirl.
Amidst what feels like the fingerprints of a thousand studio executives, it’s also nearly impossible to nail down the original intentions of the director who actually made it (the same man, improbably, who took home a screenwriting Oscar for Traffic nearly two decades ago).
For all that, though, Gaghan keeps his setup fairly simple: As the story opens, Downey’s Dr. John Dolittle is a man in self-imposed exile after the death of his adored wife; a brambled-bearded castaway on his own overgrown estate —content to hide away with his rescue-beast friends, tending to their assorted wounds and licking his own.
But when the Queen of England (Chernobyl‘s great Jessie Buckley, almost entirely wasted) is struck with some mysterious illness and calls on him for the cure, onward he goes, reluctantly, with his boy apprentice (Harry Collett) and wild menagerie in tow, pursued by a persnickety rival (Sheen) who seeks the same mythical tree, touted for its supernatural healing properties.
Though it all takes place in some vague long-ago of muttonchops and breeches, the tone, with its frantic patter and prodigious use of the word “bro,” is decidedly modern. No one on board seems to trust that the books’ original stories, beloved for generations, could possibly hold 21st-century attention spans — and so they toss it all in, determined to keep that Tilt-a-Whirl spinning till the end. C+