Why Robert Downey Jr.'s Terrible 'Dolittle' Is the Year's First Disaster Movie
How exactly does a movie like Dolittle happen? Already earning brutal reviews and tracking to disappoint at the box office, Robert Downey Jr.'s first star vehicle since exiting the safe confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe looks like it could be the first major flop of the year. The tale of a doctor who can talk to animals -- voiced by a random group of celebrities including Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, and John Cena -- has all the makings of a Cats-esque fiasco: a troubled production, an awkward marketing campaign, and lots of digital fur.
But is it really that bad? Or is it the rare cinematic debacle that's actually good? It's rarely fun to sit through a likely-to-be-awful movie, but Thrillist staffers Emma Stefansky and Dan Jackson boarded the seemingly doomed voyage of Dolittle to discover exactly what happens when Iron Man dons a pair of goofy glasses, does a Welsh accent, and starts grunting like a polar bear. We may not be able to talk to animals, but at least we can talk to each other about how strange this movie was.
Dan Jackson: OK, I have a confession to make: I spent an embarrassing amount of time reading about the production of Dolittle on the internet before seeing this movie. Robert Downey Jr.'s version of Dolittle, the character from the children's books by English writer Hugh Lofting, was first announced back in 2017 with the slightly more ambitious-sounding title The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, and I remember the thing that stood out at the time was that Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of issue-driven dramas like Traffic and Syriana, was set to write and direct. It was odd, like if David Mamet signed up to adapt Amelia Bedelia.
Then things seemed to go off the rails. First, the movie's release date got pushed back, which isn't that rare for big blockbuster tentpoles. Then it was revealed in 2019 that Ninja Turtles' director Jonathan Liebesman was overseeing reshoots for the film, with Lego Batman director Chris McKay also lending a hand with some rewrites for the $175 million film. Then an anonymous crew-member posted a very funny rant online about how Gaghan was "batshit” and “a fucking moron" who struggled with all the complicated visual effect components of the production. There was also a wild anecdote about his allegedly racist dog. Normal stuff.
So, as a fan of CGI animals and a loyal reader of Dolittle movie news, I was curious to see the final product. But I'll admit I found it to be mostly tedious, a lame combination of wannabe Pirates of the Caribbean adventure sequences and super corny jokes. Were you as excited to see this movie as I was, Emma?
Emma Stefansky: I was dreading it. As soon as the first character posters hit, featuring the CGI animal cast and RDJ's variations on a shrug emoji expression, I knew we, as a culture, were really in for it. Months after the first trailer popped up a second one appeared, which included a dragon that was never even hinted at in the promotional material -- or, for what it's worth, in any part of the movie that did not already include a dragon. All I knew going into this was that the film suffered from massive studio-mandated reshoots (#ReleaseTheGaghanCut) and Octavia Spencer plays a character named Dab-Dab.
I struggle to come up with a metaphor that accurately describes what watching this movie feels like. It's so disjointed, ugly, and un-funny that it's baffling Universal is releasing it at all. Half of the dialogue barely matches up with the characters' mouth movements -- Robert Downey, Jr. included -- and the other half occurs only when characters are facing away from the camera, or offscreen entirely. It's like someone shot the movie without sound, realized they never recorded any dialogue, and employed a new person to add in dialogue without giving them a script. Even the action sequences, aside from an interminable one at the beginning of the movie involving a giraffe catapulting a human boy onto a ship, seem cut together from completely separate film reels. I've never seen anything like it! (You're free to use that on the posters, Universal.)
I think the biggest shock, though, was the (very pretty!) animated prologue the movie begins with, which gives us some backstory on the version of Dr. Dolittle we're about to meet, and in doing so, introduces and then immediately kills off the most interesting character in the entire movie. Dolittle was married to a sassy female adventurer who discovered a bunch of stuff and then drowned in a shipwreck. This barely matters to the plot. I'm kind of iffy on the plot at this point anyway, because it's been a few days since I saw the movie, and the last thing I wrote in my notes was, "mice are always children," doubtless the oozy ramblings of a poisoned, exhausted mind.
I feel like I'm maybe being harsh, though. Was there anything in this movie that you liked, Dan?
Dan: Yeah, killing off Dolitte's wife, who sounded like a potentially interesting character, felt very Christopher Nolan-y. That was not a part of the movie that I liked. I've also spent a lot of time looking at my incoherent notes and trying to make sense of what I saw. Looking back on the movie, there are three (3) things I really enjoyed:
- You know that scene from The Hunt for Red October, directed by god John McTiernan, where they zoom in on the lips of the Russian-speaking submarine guy and then zoom out as he starts to speak English, signaling that we're now watching a "translated" version of his dialogue? Dolittle does that but with Downey speaking an animal language early on, and when it happened I totally lost it. An incredible moment.
- There's a part where a gorilla (voiced by Rami Malek) kicks a tiger (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) in the nuts. Then we cut away to a rabbit watching nearby and he goes, "That's gotta hurt." That part ruled.
- Spoiler for the best part of Dolittle: A DRAGON FARTS IN ROBERT DOWNEY JR.'S FACE. Pure cinema.
That's about it. It's hard to overstate the number of terrible jokes in this movie. At multiple points, I found myself thinking of that Patton Oswalt bit about comedians doing "punch-ups" on movies where the studio asks them to think of jokes for characters to yell over the unfunny action scenes. Dolittle feels so punched up that the film starts to resemble a boxer's bloody, bruised face. It's brutal.
Did you have a favorite joke? Also, more importantly, what did you think of the animals?
Emma: I think the only time I genuinely laughed at something I liked was when, at the beginning, the animals were giving Dolittle a pep talk, telling him that he needs to get out of the house and experience the world, and one of the animals, a cute little lion cub (definitely plagiarized from the model Disney based their "live-action" Simba on) pronounced, slowly and with great feeling, the phrase "express emotional vulnerability." Little child-voices saying complex adult words! That's funny. And it never comes back, ever. I assume we're supposed to see Dolittle have some lengthy emotional journey over the course of this film, but it's so chopped and screwed that just doesn't end up happening.
The animals were… fine. Computer animation has become so good that seeing a vividly rendered gorilla onscreen is kinda like, ok, sure. I think the last time I genuinely lost my mind at CGI animals was in the most recent Planet of the Apes movies, which, you could tell, took great pains to make their chimps look like something you could touch. The problem with a movie like this is the action and tone are inherently cartoon-like, so to jumble lifelike animals in with that only confuses your brain. I would have much rather seen a version of this that looked like the 2-D animation in the prologue, where expressions and colors have space to be more naturally exaggerated. Trying to do that but still have your animals look real is like trying to walk a pushmi-pullyu down the street. (A little Dr. Dolittle reference for the real heads.)
Something that I MUST address: the motor-mouthed "dragonfly" named James (???) voiced by Jason Mantzoukas. Any entomophile worth their salt, which I am, will be unable to miss that the character is not a dragonfly at all, but a damselfly, a member of the same family as as the dragonfly with clear wings and a long tail, but that's where the similarities end. I get why they picked that model for the character -- damselflies, with their slightly buggier eyes and exaggerated bodies, are more expressive than your average dragonfly, so it makes sense for a movie that leans on its cartoonish moments. But they call him a dragonfly! Multiple times! It's on the Wikipedia page! How dare you make such a brazen mistake, you disgusting idiots, you absolute children. Honestly, a damselfly that is nonetheless supposed to be a male character is something, given the caliber of the rest of the jokes in this movie, I thought Dolittle would do something -- anything! -- with. Perplexingly, no such luck.
Dan: Even if you don't know anything about bugs, there's a lot to be perplexed about Dolittle. Like, why make Dolittle?
There's good reason for studios to stay away from this character. The 1967 version starring Rex Harrison was a notorious disaster with a troubled production, hilariously chronicled in the book Pictures at a Revolution. The Eddie Murphy version from 1998 gave us Chris Rock's singing guinea pig and was successful enough to get one sequel, plus a handful of direct-to-video spin-offs, but it wasn't exactly a classic. Is this a story that truly needs rehashing for every generation? If you squint, you can see the swashbuckling remnants of what perhaps first attracted Gaghan and Downey to the project. There was potential to tell a kid-friendly tale of a Tony Stark-like eccentric who goes on wild, daring trips while chatting up a number of exotic creatures. It was probably never going to be great, but it didn't necessarily have to be this awful.
They ended up with a movie that's so frantic, so slathered with one-liners, and so engineered to keep your attention that it never achieves that storybook tone it's clearly shooting for. Every scene feels cluttered, packed with mugging humans and hollering animals, and it makes watching the action unfold feel like trying to navigate a website covered with pop-up ads. But what is Dolittle actually selling its audience? Instead of offering a spark of wonder, it emanates a sense of weary exhaustion. Even a dragon fart couldn't save it.
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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.