There’s always a lot of talk at this time of year about the possibility of big actors Norbit-ing themselves. The term comes from the Oscars in 2007, in which Eddie Murphy’s expected Best Supporting Actor win for Dreamgirls didn’t come off, with some of the responsibility placed on the fact his terrible multi-role comedy came out two weeks before the ceremony. With that in mind, Robert Downey Jr. should be pretty bloody glad he never got that Oscar nod for Avengers: Endgame. Dolittle is a Norbit in waiting.
Funnily enough, the last time Hugh Lofting’s 1920s literary hero Doctor Dolittle was on screen, it was in the guise of Murphy. His pair of Dr. Dolittle films are fondly remembered, particularly among those who were kids when they first came out, and the previous incarnation in the 1960s, starring Rex Harrison, was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. This version of Dolittle has Oscar pedigree in the shape of Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who also directs, and it also boasts Downey Jr. in the white-hot aftermath of Endgame.
After a handsome animated prologue recounting Dolittle’s tragic back-story, he is snapped out of his Willy Wonka-like isolation by animal lover Stubbins (Harry Collett) and the posh young girl Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) – channelling early noughties Hermione Granger with aplomb. The queen of England (Jessie Buckley, in her most thankless role to date) is on her deathbed after a mysterious poisoning and only Dolittle can help by embarking on a quest to find a quasi-mythical fruit with healing properties. There are also rumours of a dragon, Michael Sheen playing a Victorian baddie and an A-list roster of talking animals.
There are problems all over the shop here, with almost every story turn truncated and rushed as if the narrative has been repeatedly chopped, reshaped and tangled in order to produce the finished product. Nothing in the movie is able to breathe for a second as Gaghan rattles through the expensive-looking adventure set pieces and the constant flurry of animal-based slapstick – lookout for a gorilla kicking a tiger in the balls and then choking it out MMA-style while singing, as well as a weird, scorpion-themed dick joke.
Downey Jr. showboats through the centre of it all in a performance that, if anything, just illustrates the symbiosis of his Marvel role. Tony Stark did as much for Downey Jr. as the actor did for the MCU and he seems entirely unmoored from his recent success in Dolittle. With an accent that comes across as Tom Jones doing a drunken best man speech and a sauntering demeanour that’s effectively a reincarnation of Captain Jack Sparrow, this is a desperately poor performance.
There’s considerably more fun to have in the voice performances of the actors playing the animals. Tom Holland channels his own puppyish demeanour into playing an actual puppy, while John Cena brings meathead silliness to polar bear Yoshi. The standout, though, is Kumail Nanjiani as Plimpton the ostrich, who is delightfully sarcastic and prone to sticking his head in the sand whenever anything goes wrong – as it frequently does. There’s also plenty to enjoy in Michael Sheen, who can do the well-spoken villain role in his sleep. In fact, it’s only a whisker from his acclaimed Tony Blair work.
But whenever Dolittle gets near anything approaching the sort of silly fun it sets out to be, it trips over its own feet and falls straight into the path of an over-elaborate fart gag or a story turn straight out of the blue. While it’s not without merits, Gaghan’s movie is an evidently compromised production, coming across as a patchwork of different ideas melded together into something that is awkwardly composed and as rickety as a brittle rope bridge. And then there’s that accent. It’s like a drunken uncle at a wedding in Llandudno, with about half of the entertainment value.
Dir: Stephen Gaghan
Scr: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, Chris McKay
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Harry Collett, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Carmel Laniado, Antonio Banderas, Jessie Buckley, Jason Mantzoukas, Ralph Fiennes
Prd: Susan Downey, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Joe Roth
DOP: Guillermo Navarro
Music: Danny Elfman
Run time: 101 mins
Dolittle is in UK cinemas from 7th February.