Past efforts to bring the good doctor’s adventures to the screen have met with mixed success. The 1967 musical with Rex Harrison was a famous flop, though more imaginative and truer to Lofting’s intentions than is sometimes acknowledged; the 1990s update with Eddie Murphy was at least energetically vulgar.
There ought to be scope for a 21st-century Dolittle, perhaps infused with a new kind of environmental consciousness. Downey’s involvement is enough to spark interest, along with that of writer-director Stephen Gaghan – best-known for the global oil industry expose Syriana.
But the film is an awful disappointment on all fronts: the dullest version of the material yet. Downey remains a precise enough physical comedian to remind you why he was once cast as Charlie Chaplin, but over-exposure has drained his jittery, manic-depressive persona of any power to surprise. His Dolittle is almost identical to his Sherlock Holmes, or indeed any other character he’s played in the last decade and a half, except for a puzzling Scottish accent (we’re told that he studied at the University of Edinburgh) and less warmth.
As in Angelina Jolie’s most recent Maleficent film, there’s the sense of a star being handled with so much care they’ve been cordoned off from their own movie. Mourning the death of his wife (not in the books), Dolittle, like Maleficent, is a hermit as well as a misanthrope. Just to get him out of the house requires an elaborate yet routine treasure hunt plot, involving an effort to save the life of the young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) who is being poisoned by Dolittle’s wicked rival (Michael Sheen, aiming to fill his limited screen time with a maximum of smirking).
That Downey’s furry and feathered co-stars are largely digitally generated can be justified on ethical grounds as well as practical ones. But it means that he’s often performing in a void, with few flesh-and-blood actors to play off: Harry Collett, as his young sidekick, spends much of his time expressing awe and joy in his own separate reaction shots.
None of it adds up to much thematically, and it all has a truncated, cramped, businesslike feel, despite an evidently huge budget and a score by Danny Elfman that works overtime to induce a sense of wonder. Some of Lofting’s most famous creations, such as the two-headed pushmi-pullyu or the Great Pink Sea Snail, have been shunted aside. There is, on the other hand, a fire-breathing dragon, perhaps because someone has decided it’s time for us to start feeling nostalgic for the Lord of the Rings films.
The dialogue doesn’t help. Downey gets to deliver the occasional zinger, along the lines of “Let me slip into something less comfortable.” The animals are voiced by the usual random assortment of stars – Emma Thompson, Selena Gomez, John Cena, Rami Malek – and say things like “My bad” or “It’s showtime” or “Teamwork makes the dream work.”
The total lack of inspiration is puzzling, given that the writers include Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, members of the team that brought us TV’s brilliant Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But there’s little point speculating on what particular individuals may have done behind the scenes: the film is a flavourless broth spoiled by far too many cooks, no doubt including Downey himself as executive producer.
“A Film By Stephen Gaghan,” the closing credits announce: but this is hardly more convincing than the lyrics of the pop song we hear at the same moment. “I won’t waste my life being typical, I’ma be original…” That’s right, Sia: you do you, just like everybody else.
Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Written by Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.