Tom Augustine on the weekend in film
There's no denying Robert Downey Jr utterly commits to Dolittle (dir. Stephen Gaghan, Rated PG), a family-friendly oddity that arrives on-screen after extensive behind-the-scenes drama.
From the off this adaptation of the beloved character sets itself apart as being singularly weird - not least because of Downey as the titular doctor who can talk to the animals, here assuming a garbled, rasping accent that seems to fluctuate between Scottish, Welsh and some sort of English.
It's a strange choice for the actor's first major turn post- Avengers and the choices he's made as the character are no less perplexing, incorporating a loose assembly of tics and idiosyncrasies that never really give the viewer an insight into the doctor's inner life.
Set in Victorian England, the film loosely centres on an animal-loving young boy (Harry Collett, ably filling the role of "bland sidekick") who stumbles on Dolittle living as a recluse in an animal sanctuary. The two are quickly embroiled in a palace intrigue, embarking on a swiftly-established mission for a life-saving elixir for the Queen, who has fallen victim to a mysterious illness.
Along for the ride are a menagerie of colourful exotic animals that serve as a troupe of supporters for Dolittle, voiced by a stacked bench of famous performers - Tom Holland as a dog, Rami Malek as a gorilla, Ralph Fiennes as a tiger and so on. Few of the voice performers feel well-cast. In fact, in many cases their presence serves to break the believability of things; Emma Thompson fares best as Dolittle's voice-of-reason, a blue macaw.
Dolittle is a quirky, haphazard film - clearly the victim of ruthless editing and reshooting - and lacking in clear tone. Nothing really makes much sense, with character motivations turning on a dime despite some bizarrely committed performances (notably from the wonderful Michael Sheen as a moustache-twirling villain and Antonio Banderas in a brief but impactful turn as an imperious ruler). It's lovely to see Downey in a new role - any role - that doesn't involve him donning an iron suit, but one does long for the days when his performances felt less like excessive quirk and more dangerous and thrillingly alive - think Zodiac or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Downey here feels less like he's making an ambitious choice and more like he's making a needlessly overcooked one, a la Johnny Depp's recent career output.
The film is too convoluted in dialogue and plot for little kids but overcompensates with juvenile kid-friendly gags and anachronisms (a polar bear who calls everyone "bro", for example) that rarely elicit chuckles from the over-five crowd.
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The action and villains are rarely pulse-raising; its hero feels more mysterious by film's end than at the beginning. One gets the impression many different hands have had a go trying to "fix" this film, and the result has left Dolittle hopelessly muddled.
Rating: Two stars.