With an illustrious career playing flashy icons like Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, what else is there left for Robert Downey, Jr. to do other than graduate into Dr. Dolittle? In Stephen Gaghan’s “Dolittle,” the megastar dons the famous top hat with proud frivolity and misanthropic aloofness. This reboot of Hugh Lofting’s collection of children’s books makes no apologies for which demographic it aims to delight. The reclusive British doctor – not a veterinarian, lest we forget – surrounds himself with a coterie of animals he can communicate with. Thankfully for viewers, this power doesn’t involve magic or anthropomorphic suspension of disbelief.
Holed up in his grand estate and wallowing in mangy misery, the unkempt Doctor has sworn off helping humanity. His late wife’s (Kasia Smutniak) drowning during a sea expedition years back suppressed any desire to engage with the outside world. However, the sick still need their country’s most prolific and skilled (and cheap) healthcare provider. Thus, the ill come knocking, much to Dolittle’s chagrin. Carrying an injured squirrel (Craig Robinson) that his uncle forced him to shoot during a hunting excursion, young Tommy Stubbins (promising newcomer Harry Collett) soon discovers he’s not the only one seeking aid. A child envoy (Carmel Laniado) sent by Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) also enlists the services of Doctor Dolittle, as her Majesty has contracted a mysterious life-threatening illness.
Galvanized by his furry and scaly flatmates to remember his Hippocratic oath, Dolittle spiffs up for an audience with England’s reigning monarch. Sporting a befuddling accent that sounds like every United Kingdom region thrown into a blender, Robert Downey, Jr.’s eccentricity is more tolerable here because his title role genuinely doesn’t seek the limelight. Of course, there’s no point convincing his bitter rival Dr. Blair Müdfly (an inconsistently funny Michael Sheen) otherwise. The Queen’s sinister physician and royal attendant Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) aren’t fooling anyone about their guilt. Dolittle quickly deduces her Majesty has been poisoned, and the antidote resides on an island of legend said to contain healing fruits.
An epic adventure sets literal sail soon thereafter, Dolittle’s entire animal caravan in tow along with the determined Tommy Stubbins, who aims to prove himself an invaluable assistant. The plethora of big personalities among the herd is both charming and chaotic, some voice actors faring better than others. Kumail Nanjiani and Emma Thompson acquit themselves best from any kind of embarrassment.
As Polynesia the parrot, Thompson is the voice of reason who steers Dolittle’s conscience on the correct ethical path. The only head-scratch is why screenwriters Gaghan, Dan Gregor, and Doug Mand would omit that – according to the 1920 inaugural book in the series, “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” — it was Polynesia who taught Dolittle how to speak to the entire animal kingdom. The movie makes it seem like Dolittle had a preternatural ability for this rare form of linguistics, and doubles down when Stubbins emulates identical skill. In this instance, men are predictably writing about men being the inventors of their own genius.
Kumail Nanjiani provides the best comic relief as Plimpton the ostrich, his skittish nature and self-deprecation hilariously in conflict with the crew’s invitation of danger. Less fortunate are Rami Malek as Chi-Chi the worrisome gorilla — basically doing a “Josh-Gad-playing-Olaf” impersonation — and Octavia Spencer as Dab-Dab, an unintelligent duck who has none of the redeeming charisma of “The Little Mermaid’s” similarly half-witted seagull, Scuttle.
Rounding out the traveling zoo are Betsy the giraffe (Selena Gomez), loyal Jip the dog (Tom Holland), Tutu the fox (Marion Cotillard in the least consequential role of her career), and John Cena as Yoshi the polar bear — who looks like an extra out of HBO’s “His Dark Materials.” Along the journey, they encounter a bitter father-in-law (Antonio Banderas with the makeup job of the decade) and his feline familiars (Ralph Fiennes and Carmen Egojo). Finally, Jason Mantzoukas plays an appropriately pesky dragonfly with some of the looniest CGI design in recent memory.
Breathe a sigh of relief because “Dolittle” isn’t the train wreck many predicted. It’s less of a snore than Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG,” less plot-saddled than the “The Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and less visually boorish than Tim Burton’s “Alice and Wonderland.” The problem with “Dolittle” is that when it makes detours from the main quest for the purpose of lightening the stakes, its humor isn’t strong enough to buoy engagement. Intentionally cheeky jokes either don’t land or are confusingly received.
Moreover, there’s a reliance on puns and figures of speech that play off being unoriginal by pretending Dolittle and company invented them. Young kids might find these lazy tactics enjoyable, but to everyone else it feels like a circus without any bedazzlement. While the earnest Tommy Stubbins’ character puts a subversive spin on the rags-to-riches arc, “Dolittle” nestles comfortably as juvenile adventure fluff and not much more in aspiration. Judging by the exorbitant cost of this remake, that’s probably for the best.