Not even Robert Downey Jr. can save ‘Dolittle’ in a mediocre movie that only the smallest of children may enjoy

Robert Downey Jr. is the best thing about

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Robert Downey Jr. is the best thing about “Dolittle.”
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Universal Pictures

  • Warning: There are some spoilers ahead for “Dolittle.”
  • Robert Downey Jr.’s first movie after playing Iron Man for over a decade is not his finest work.
  • Without Downey Jr., there’s no reason to watch this adaptation – based loosely on Hugh Lofting’s book series – other than to figure out the celebrity cast behind many of the animals.
  • John Cena and Emma Thompson play a polar bear and parrot, both of which kids should enjoy.
  • But other than Dolittle, most of the characters feel one-dimensional.
  • Many of the jokes fall flat, with the film relying on a few unnecessary fart and butt jokes.
  • Overall, the film feels like a mix of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and a “Sherlock Holmes” movie, with some of “The Jungle Book” thrown in for good measure.
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There’s a moment late in “Dolittle” when Robert Downey Jr.’s titular doctor gives a dragon a colonoscopy with a vegetable.

Though it’s supposed to be funny, it’s not. The scene carries on for far too long and culminates with a giant gust of air blasting Downey Jr. in the face. You can see it in TV ads for the film.

This is the moment with Robert Downey Jr. seen in TV ads.

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This is the moment with Robert Downey Jr. seen in TV ads.
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Universal Pictures

That being said, with an estimated $175 million production budget, “Dolittle” is likely to be one of the first big clunkers of the year. The latest adaption of the doctor sees John Dolittle go on an expedition with his caravan of animal friends and a stowaway apprentice hopeful (Harry Collett) as they attempt to retrieve a cure to ail a sick Queen Victoria of England. Not only is the Queen’s life at risk, but Dolittle will lose his animal sanctuary if her majesty dies.

Though very young children may enjoy this new version of the film, the talents of the charming Downey Jr. and a dastardly Michael Sheen can’t save this movie, which can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a “Pirates of the Caribbean” or a “Sherlock” wannabe with a dash of “The Jungle Book.”

Whatever it is, it’s certainly a disappointing “Dolittle” adaptation.

What to know: This is Downey Jr.’s first movie after playing Iron Man for more than a decade and has a packed celebrity cast. The film is inspired by the ‘Dolittle’ book series.

There wasn't enough of Tom Holland's dog Jip and Robert Downey Jr. in this film.

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There wasn’t enough of Tom Holland’s dog Jip and Robert Downey Jr. in this film.
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Universal Pictures

Just to be clear, “Dolittle” is a movie produced in part by Downey Jr.’s production company with his wife Susan Downey. No one forced him to do this. This film was his choice.

The film stars a tremendous A-list cast ranging from Emma Thompson and Selena Gomez to Rami Malek and John Cena. Tom Holland teams up with Downey Jr. once again after their time in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. This time, instead of a sidekick, he’s Dolittle’s trusty dog who wears glasses for some reason.

If you’re familiar with Hugh Lofting’s “Doctor Dolittle” book series published in the 1920s and 1930s, it served as inspiration for the film. In particular, Lofting’s second book, “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle,” provides some of the beats for the film’s opening.

What’s good: Robert Downey Jr. can, thankfully, make anything watchable. Parents will get a kick out of figuring out which celebrity plays what animal.

Without Robert Downey Jr.'s performance, there'd be no reason to head out to theaters.

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Without Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, there’d be no reason to head out to theaters.
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Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures

Let’s get this out of the way. “Dolittle” isn’t unbearable to watch and that’s because of Downey Jr. This could be Downey Jr.’s worst film and you could still watch it because he’s a delight. You never know what he’s going to do next. The man knows how to entertain and keep your attention through a simple look, a line delivery, or with an eloquent speech or deduction.

He does all three here quite effortlessly and if there’s any reason to come out to see “Dolittle,” make no mistake, it’s for Downey Jr.

He’s charismatic and enjoyable, especially in the film’s opening moments where he’s playing a game of chess with live mice. Is it a bit strange to see him beating his chest at a gorilla and growling with a dog? Sure! But it’s easy to let this slide. He’s a man who can speak to animals after all, and that’s what you’re paying to see. The only other reason to go out and see “Dolittle” is for the wide range of celebrity cameos. Adults will have a fun time trying to guess who all of the famous voices are until they’re revealed in the credits. Apparently, Downey Jr. personally asked Rami Malek to play a gorilla in the film.

The best of all the animals is arguably Craig Robinson’s squirrel named Kevin who narrates his own subplot throughout the film. His vengeful character received some of the movie’s biggest laughs (of which there weren’t many).

Craig Robinson's squirrel character Kevin will be one of children's favorites.

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Craig Robinson’s squirrel character Kevin will be one of children’s favorites.
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Universal Pictures

Otherwise, John Cena and Kumail Nanjiani are two other standouts for their bickering as a polar bear and ostrich at odds. All of the cameos aren’t even teased in ads for the film. There are a few delights I won’t spoil here.

The bad: Some of the well-intended humor falls flat. The movie doesn’t seem to know what kind of film it wants to be.

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“Dolittle” feels like the idea of several franchises combined.
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Universal Pictures

Some day, people will learn you can make a very good animated or children’s film without fart jokes and butt jokes. “Dolittle” does both at least three times throughout the film. None of the moments hit. They just get more uncomfortable and cringeworthy to watch as they go on.

Another running gag with a duck mistaking forceps for celery was a big miss, too.

Jokes aside, there are parts of “Dolittle” where it feels like you’re watching moments from other movies.

At one point, Dolittle is up against a tiger who looks plucked from Disney or WB’s recent adaptations of “The Jungle Book.” Ralph Fiennes, who voices the tiger, is fine here, but he has nothing on Idris Elba and Benedict Cumberbatch who have played previous versions of the feline on screen.

Ralph Fiennes voices Barry the tiger in

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Ralph Fiennes voices Barry the tiger in “Dolittle.”
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Universal Pictures

The dragon teased in the film’s trailers looks so much like a Smaug rip-off from “The Hobbit” films that I’d be surprised if the Tolkien estate doesn’t come knocking.

The top image shows the dragon in

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The top image shows the dragon in “Dolittle.” The bottom image shows the dragon from “The Hobbit” films.
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Universal Pictures, Weta Digital

It’s also hard not to compare “Dolittle” to films like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or the 2009 “Sherlock Holmes” that also starred Downey Jr.

It doesn’t help that Dolittle is on a ship most of the time and gets to his destinations far too conveniently for his mission. When a problem occurs, Dolittle magically seems to know the way. It feels like a plot out of a “Pirates” film.

And when Downey Jr. twirls a hat onto his head at one point, you can easily swap the moment out with a scene from one of his “Sherlock” movies.

Is this a scene from

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Is this a scene from “Dolittle” or a “Sherlock Holmes” movie? (It’s “Dolittle.”)
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Universal Pictures

The other actors – apart from Downey Jr. and Michael Sheen’s Dr. Blair Müdfly – play one-dimensional characters.

Harry Collett (“Dunkirk”) has a pretty large role in the film as Tommy Stubbins, a boy who wants to be the doctor’s apprentice, but he never feels well-developed enough beyond the one-dimensional idea that he’s odd and his family doesn’t accept him because they believe he’s not into the normal things that a boy should be into, like hunting.

Harry Collett's character just feels generic.

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Harry Collett’s character just feels generic.
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Universal Pictures

It’s also tough to buy 30-year-old Jessie Buckley playing an 18-year-old Queen Victoria. (The age is never said on screen. It’s revealed in the film’s lengthy production notes.)

Do you believe this queen is supposed to be 18?

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Do you believe this queen is supposed to be 18?
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Universal Pictures

One of the film’s biggest errors is having such a large, famous cast without ever introducing any of them properly. (I didn’t know Octavia Spencer’s duck’s name until close to the movie’s end.)

Again, if you’re familiar with Lofting’s books, the names of many of the animals are the same. But it would have helped to do a quick rundown of them all to help both children and adults keep track of the menagerie.

Overall: No one outside of very young children will enjoy this adventure

Robert Downey Jr.'s

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Robert Downey Jr.’s “Dolittle” film will appeal to a limited audience.
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Universal Pictures

My showing had some applause after the film was over, but it was also filled with a smattering of families invited for the showing alongside critics. Universal provided free popcorn, drinks, and some stuffed animals for kids.

Despite any shortcomings, parents with very young children should have a pleasant enough time here. Downey Jr. knows how to keep an audience’s attention and younger kids may be enchanted with the CGI talking animals. But no one over 7 or 8 years old will care much for this outing.

Grade: C- for a very unnecessary dragon colonoscopy

“Dolittle” is in theaters “Friday.” You can watch a trailer for it below.