Cats broke me. I can no longer tell what is “good” and what is “bad”. There is only “Cats” and “not Cats”. In that sense, Robert Downey, Jr.’s new movie, Dolittle, is not Cats. I don’t know if that makes it good by default, or just not Cats. What I do know about Dolittle is that it stars RDJ sporting a ridiculous and distracting Welsh accent, that there is a cavalcade of computer animals that completely waste a talented voiceover cast, there are two (2) precocious British children, Antonio Banderas was born to play a sad pirate, and that Dolittle is dead boring. It’s so boring that at one point a child at my screening asked the theater at large, “How long is this?”
Directed and co-written by Stephen Gaghan, best known for political thriller Syriana, Dolittle turns Hugh Lofting’s fanciful book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, into a sluggish story about a sad widower who talks to animals rediscovering his zest for life by giving a dragon a colonoscopy. Dolittle is, on paper, deeply strange. There are so many WEIRD decisions in this movie, it defies logic that the end result is as dull as it is. Let me just repeat: At one point, Dolittle—played by widely regarded and admired actor Robert Downey, Jr.—sticks his arm up a dragon’s butt and clears out its colon. There exists in some alternate dimension a version of Dolittle directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky in which this scene is a strange and demented delight. In this dimension, unfortunately, it’s just an unnecessarily long buildup to a bad fart joke. I thought fart jokes were always at least a little bit funny, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a bad fart joke! But there is! Dolittle found it!
Indeed, Dolittle finds the worst version of everything. Besides the bad fart joke, there is also a bad kick-to-the-groin bit. Kicks to the groin are ALWAYS funny! That’s Comedy 101! But once again, Dolittle does its best to be the absolute worst. There are a few jokes that work, including a genuinely really very good bit involving a fly and a seagull. But Dolittle is overwhelmingly misguided, so much so it is impossible to accept that this is RDJ’s passion project and not just a random gig he took and then got trapped in a nightmare production. His performance as Doctor Dolittle isn’t even notable, which is the greatest waste of the entire movie. If nothing else, we should have gotten an interesting performance from RDJ, but his Dolittle is equal parts Willy Wonka and Jack Sparrow. It feels lazy, like he’s just copying someone else’s work. His torturous accent defies that description—it’s obvious he put some effort into this role—but it just feels so borrowed.
It is obvious that something went very wrong here, because no one sets out to make a movie so uninteresting and misguided. There are moments when it feels like entire scenes are missing to get us from one point to the next, and most of the animal characters are completely interchangeable because they’ve been so reduced by drastic editing that they barely get a moment to speak. This is a STACKED voice cast, including Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, John Cena, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Jason Mantzoukas, Marion Cotillard, and Emma Thompson. Two-thirds of those voices you won’t be able to pick out in the movie, either because the actor is doing a silly voice, or because they barely get to say anything. What’s the point of paying these people if you can’t hear them? What’s the point of any of this?
Dolittle’s greatest sin is just how tedious it is. It could at least be interestingly bad, like Cats. But it’s just bad in the normal way. It has too much story and so requires an enormous amount of exposition—all of which falls on Emma Thompson’s shoulders—and the pacing is terrible, so it veers between action and long, slow parts where everyone talks about Dolittle’s dead wife. Just what a kids’ movie needs! It is possible, if you squint, to see a workable version of this that is a swift eighty minutes of silly action that keeps young children consistently entertained. But even at a hundred minutes, Dolittle is too long—the kids in my screening palpably lost interest—and there aren’t enough passable jokes to maintain momentum. Dolittle is the worst kind of mess: a boring one.