Gaghan has essentially never had a real hit and Universal let him make this monstrosity for nearly $200 mil. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here.
In the wake of the exceptionally weird disaster that was Cats, any average studio misfire is going to look like The Godfather by comparison. But if it were released in a January dumping ground further removed from that feline musical miasma, Dolittle, the new Robert Downey Jr vehicle destined to lose Universal hundreds of millions of dollars, would surely be the season’s hot button curio.
In the abstract, this new film based on Hugh Lofting’s “Doctor Dolittle” books had the potential to be a new family-friendly franchise for the studio. Casting megastar RDJ in the lead role, populating the CGI animals with big name voice actors and culling the narrative from the more “mature” sector of Lofting’s series all sound like good ideas on paper. But in the execution, Dolittle is somehow less than the sum of its basic moving parts. It is a confounding calamity of a motion picture, splitting the distance between prestige drama pathos and Minions-level child pandering.
Really, it shouldn’t be that hard to sell a movie about a doctor who talks to animals. But Dolittle was uniquely doomed from the start. The studio hired Syriana writer/director Stephen Gaghan, a man who has not had a critical or commercial success in over a decade, to script and helm the project, despite his lack of experience with comedy, visual effects, or tentpole filmmaking in general. Early cuts were so disastrous, the film’s release date would be moved multiple times, with TNMT director Jonathan Liebesman brought in to assist with reshoots alongside writer Chris McKay.
Now, based on how scattershot, awkwardly stitched together and intermittently humorous the final product is, one can only begin to imagine how unwatchable the film was before these revisions. As it stands, the film’s positive points are as follows: John Cena voices a polar bear who calls everybody “bro.” Michael Sheen plays an evil doctor jealous of Dolittle’s innate gifts as a healer. Antonio Banderas shows up for roughly six screen minutes to ham it up as a vengeful ruler. Eventually, the movie ends and the viewer is allowed to go back to their real life where they don’t have to hear Downey Jr’s insufferable fake accent.
Everything else is uniformly terrible. The plot, surrounding Dolittle having to save the ailing Queen lest he lose his land and animal sanctuary, devolves into a weird episode of “House,” and although the film’s promising prologue implies the potential for a touching story about how difficult connecting with humans can be and the tragedy of lost love, it all ends with an expensive series of fart jokes. It’s just scene after scene of Downey Jr muttering to himself in what sounds like bad ADR (was his accent initially somehow worse?) and each of the barely animated animals take turns spitting unconnected one-liners.
Sure, some of the jokes land and it’s not like there aren’t fun moments, but given how costly the production was and how much manpower went into the film’s creation, the finished product is embarrassing and frustrating, a wasted opportunity if ever there was one.
Perhaps what’s most disappointing is how, just like with Cats, Gaghan (like Tom Hooper) will probably survive the failure and escape Director Jail. When Karyn Kusama directed Aeon Flux and it flopped, she didn’t get to make another film for over a decade with The Invitation. Gaghan has essentially never had a real hit and Universal let him make this monstrosity for nearly $200 mil. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here.