Dolittle is not a film. Dolittle is a crime scene in need of forensic analysis. Something happened here. Something terrible. Something inexplicable. Watching the film doesn't tell the whole story, because it doesn't behave like the usual errant vision, which might be chalked up to a poor conceit or some hiccups in execution. This one has been stabbed multiple times, and only a thorough behind-the-scenes examination could sort out whose fingerprints are on what hilt.
Some details have already emerged: The credited director of Dolittle is Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for scripting Traffic and wrote and directed the oil thriller Syriana — an odd résumé for a children's film to say the least. After poor test screenings, the film's release date was pushed from spring of 2019 to January of 2020, and it underwent extensive reshoots under director Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and writer Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie), who reportedly punched up the script. During that same period, the name of the film changed from The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, referencing the second book in Hugh Lofting's series about an eccentric animal doctor, to simply Dolittle, stripped even of the honorarium.
Normally, such trips to the sausage factory are not necessary to understand why a film works or it doesn't, but Dolittle is so incoherent that it can't be unpacked on its own. Certain baseline elements of a professional Hollywood production — this one budgeted upwards of $175 million — are simply not present here: The filmmakers have been stymied by the technical challenge of having human actors interact with CGI animals, so eye-lines don't meet and the editing within scenes lacks continuity. Robert Downey Jr. is off mumbling incoherently in one part of the frame, an all-star voice cast is making wisecracks as a polar bear or an ostrich or a squirrel in another, and only occasionally do they look like they're on speaking terms.
The storybook opening hints at what might have been, a seafaring adventure of whimsical animals and swashbuckling pirates rather than a funny actor riffing with a bunch of wacky animals. Emma Thompson's macaw squawks the tragic tale of John Dolittle (Downey), a famed animal doctor in Victorian England who has been a sad recluse in the seven years since his wife died at sea, leaving him alone in his manor with just his animal friends as company. But when some treachery at the palace leads to Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) becoming gravely ill, Dolittle sets sail on an epic voyage to the island of Sumatra, which possesses a rare Eden fruit that might be the only cure. Standing in the way are Dolittle's arch nemesis, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), and Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), the king of the pirates.
Lofting's books have inspired multiple Dolittles on screen, notably Rex Harrison in Richard Fleischer's 1967 adaptation and Eddie Murphy in the 1998 version, which was spun off into one sequel with Murphy and three more without him. None of the films have been good, but at least they knew what they were, which is how the '67 Doctor Dolittle earned an absurd best picture nomination and why a PG-rated Murphy scored with young children. Gaghan's Dolittle aspires to a more sophisticated, visually lush adventure, but winds up leaning on disconnected one-liners by recognized voices such as Rami Malek as a gorilla, Kumail Nanjiani as an ostrich and Ralph Fiennes as a tiger. (It should be noted that Jason Mantzoukas, as a sassy dragonfly, continues his streak of being funny under any circumstances.)
This creative battle over Dolittle pulls it in two directions at once and contributes to a lugubriousness that's unique to expensive comedies that don't work, such as 1941 or The Adventures of Pluto Nash. There's also Downey's utterly charmless performance as Dolittle, a combination of desperate improvisation and a Welsh accent that sounds pushed through a mouthful of marbles and indifference. But that's still not enough to account for the film's failures, which are more about the nuts and bolts of putting images together to tell a story. Even after 120 years of cinema, it's still possible to get the basics wrong.