2019 may not have been a fantastic year for all of us, but many can agree that it was definitely a good year for Hollywood star Robert Downey Jr. – with the year coming to form the symbolic cherry on top of his ice-cream sundae comeback. After hitting the scene hard, reaching controversial levels of stardom, dealing with addiction and tackling sobriety. Downey soared back into the mainstream with his career defining role as Marvel’s Tony Stark. A role that allowed him to once again become a household name, and one that ended beautifully last year with the release of Avengers: Endgame, the most successful blockbuster of all time. After such roaring success and personal growth, it was clear that Downey could now do anything he wanted, but it seems his choice making skill still need some much needed work.
Enter Dolittle, yet another adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s delightful children’s’ book series, and another example of how strangely difficult it is to adapt these novels in a successful and positive way. Many film fanatics will know that previous adaptations of the Dolittle chronicles have fallen under negative reception, with the 1967 musical adaptation being regarded as one of the worst films ever made and a prime example of studio interference gone wrong. And it seems the franchise can add yet another nail to the coffin lid with Stephen Gaghan’s recent adaptation, which fails on almost every front, from narrative, to character, to performance.
Yes, even after he won (and eventually broke) our hearts with his acclaimed performance as Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. seems ready to revoke all the hard work he has done to perfect his modern image, with a performance that ranges from stale to laughable. Donning a terribly executed Welsh accent (one that made this Welsh reviewer cringe in horror) Downey simply wanders through the garish sets and scenery trying his best to perfect a character that he simply does not have the acting chops to play. Unlike Stark, who was characterised by his sarcasm and dry wit, Dolittle is a character known for his warmth and quirky nature, something that Downey can’t capture with his limited capabilities. Downey truly excels when it comes to playing characters who are intelligent and not afraid to show that fact off. His past performance as Sherlock Holmes exemplifies this, it worked because of the character’s cocky nature, something which is completely absent in his performance of lovable madman Dr Dolittle.
Beyond Downey the film is filled with relative newcomers, and most other established actors in the film tend to be relegated to the CGI animal cast. Only one praise can be given to this film and that has to be Emma Thompson’s vocal performance as the motherly parrot ‘Polly’, who also provides the film’s pointless narration. Thompson has recently joked about this role in interviews and on chat shows, but she once again proves just how professional and talented she is, even when she is providing the vocals for a CGI parrot who does very little in terms of the film’s narrative. But beyond Thompson the rest of the voice cast hardly stand out in terms of their vocal performances. Rami Malek’s gorilla character could honestly be voiced by any American accented actor and not lose any of it’s staleness, while Oscar-winning actress, Marion Cotillard, provides three lines of dialogue for a stereotypically French fox. The amount of talent brought together to make this film is startling and yet over all very little is accomplished. It is mind-boggling that so many praised performers could come together to create such a dull and lifeless bit of film.
The story itself is also cause for concern, especially when you regard just how whimsical and inviting the idea comes across on paper. A doctor who can speak to his family of exotic animals, goes on an adventure to save the Queen of England from being dethroned by a treacherous villain. In many ways this film has everything a family film should, it was magic, adventure and peril, and yet none of this is showcased in the final product. The “adventure” is reduced to a single location, where Dolittle and Co. find themselves having to escape the clutches of a tiredly hammy Antonio Banderas and his pride of poorly rendered wild cats. Even when the characters are being bested by the villainous Michael Sheen and his army of soldiers, there seems to be very little at stake.
However the most baffling element of the film has to be the final act, which progresses with the zoological family encountering a fire-breathing dragon, who seems to be suffering from a spot of trapped wind. In a strangely surreal and tonally jarring sequence, Dolittle shoves a leak up the dragons anus and proceeds to fish out various objects and weapons from her bowels. The whole sequence is so disconnected from the overall family-friendly aesthetic of the rest of the film, that you are left staring at the screen in disbelief as Downey vigorously forces his hands into the wailing dragon’s backside. As a proud Welshman, I do find myself greatly questioning the implications of a scene where a confirmed Welsh doctor roughly fists a dragon with a leak ( “a symbol of Wales did you know?”). But I guess the xenophobic connotations of this interaction will have to be addressed by the film critics of tomorrow, or by myself when I have the time to write a whole essay on the subject.
But for now let’s just conclude that this film truly is one of the worst films to have graced the new year. Saturated with annoying animal characters, inconsistent child actors and a somewhat sexually violent scene involving a dragon – the film does not capture the quirky wonder of the source material and does very little for Downey’s post-Iron Man career. If recent rumours of Downey’s involvement in the upcoming Black Window movie are true, then I suspect we’ll see Tony Stark returning to our screens at some point in the near-future. Especially if he continues to make such baffling decisions as this role has turned out to be.