By Andrew Rodden
I guess “Cats” (2019) wasn’t a big enough flop for Universal Pictures, as Stephen Gaghan’s 2020 film “Dolittle” is currently giving that catastrophe a run for its money. Currently sitting at a $45 million domestic gross, the film will need to break into a full sprint if it wants to make up for its $175 million budget. This misstep by the executives up at Universal should be amusing, but the film is ultimately confusing, mildly disturbing, and, worst of all, boring. At least “Cats” was laughably bad; “Dolittle” is just … bad.
Robert Downey Jr. stars as acclaimed veterinarian Doctor Dolittle alongside a swath of easy-to-miss characters performed by high-profile actors. Tom Holland voices Dolittle’s dog, Octavia Spencer voices a duck with a wooden leg, and Selena Gomez plays a giraffe,, who doesn’t really have a character at all. Downey is beckoned to heal a deathly ill Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who has ingested poisonous nightshade. In order to save the Queen, Dolittle and his band of misfit animals must travel to a mysterious island to find the cure.
The plot of “Dolittle” carries no meaningful tension. The stakes sometimes seem high, and at no point do I believe any of the characters are in any sort of danger. Sure, this is a kids’ movie, but children probably shouldn’t be subjected to anxiety-inducing moments of peril in a movie. Bizarrely enough, though, the filmmakers (or committee of executives, take your pick) did decide it was appropriate to include a scene in which Robert Downey Jr. removes a set of bagpipes from a dragon’s rear end (the dragon voiced by Frances de la Tour). Call me old fashioned, but this shocking moment is incredibly tone-deaf and out of place, even in a movie that features Downey bartering sugar cubes with a colony of ants.
Again, this is intended to be a kids’ movie, but that should not be an excuse to put your feet up and exert zero effort in the filmmaking process. “Dolittle” holds no respect for those watching, refusing to challenge the audience in any meaningful way. The jokes drown in cliché and convention and unfunny punchlines are poured out with a heavy hand.
Mangled by reshoots spurred on by a poor test screening, any exciting aspects from Gaghan’s script were washed away by studio interference. It is painfully obvious what is and isn’t completely refabricated to align with the humdrum manifestation Universal executives had in mind for the movie.
The camerawork is hobbled together with atrocious digital zooms, scenes of swashbuckling are completely thrown out and replaced with rushed narration, and a large portion of Downey’s lines seem to have been discarded and replaced by even worse things to say. They did not even bother to reshoot his scenes with the refigured lines — they simply pasted them over shots where Downey’s mouth is hidden. Maybe the post-production team shouldn’t have bothered, as Downey delivers his lines in a mostly unintelligible whisper. If they had just used subtitles, I’m not sure anyone would have known the difference.
There’s not much to gain from the “Dolittle” moviegoing experience, though it does remind audiences how much power big movie studios hold over the creative process. Executives decided it would be more cost-effective to spend the big bucks on reshoots instead of allowing Gaghan’s original cut to reach theaters. It’s not easy to make a movie, but neither should it be this easy to make a movie this bland and unorganized with such a bloated budget.