‘Dolittle’ has long been a dream project for its star, Robert Downey Jr. But it’s hard to imagine that this version is what he was dreaming about, even during his most feverish nights. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan finds little joy in the simple premise of Hugh Lofting’s books about a man who can talk to animals. Gaghan, who made his name writing seriously chewy adult dramas like ‘Traffic’ and ‘Syriana’ (which he also directed), seems a strange choice to helm a movie in which one of the lead characters is a bloody-minded ostrich.
In this adaptation, John Dolittle is a recluse. He once sailed the world with his wife, chatting to animals and curing their ills. But following the death of Mrs D, he has locked himself away with a pack of assorted creatures (voiced by the likes of Emma Thompson and Tom Holland, and created with excellent CGI). Now the Queen of England has been taken ill, threatening the future of his home (long story), and he’s forced back into action. The only thing that can save her is a fruit growing on an island that nobody has ever found.
The laziness of this premise – how can an undiscovered fruit be a known cure for anything? – is typical of the slapdash approach to most things in this film. Voiceover is used to paper over gaps in the storytelling, while Downey Jr – who plays Dolittle as vaguely Welsh – just looks baffled, and well he might. By the time we arrive at a finale centred on one grumpy creature’s impacted bowel, all sense has vanished and pulling an ending out of an animal’s bum seems the only option.