An intervention is in order. Robert Downey Jr. is among our most naturally charismatic movie stars, a man gifted with a unique combination of wit, charm, edge, and gravitas. He’s been through a lot and it feels like we’ve been through it with him. Plus, he just sacrificed himself to save the universe as the Avengers’ Tony Stark, not to mention anchoring an insanely profitable decade-long action franchise. Shouldn’t he try a change-up of some sort? A nasty little indie movie that might rouse the artist in him? At the very least, doesn’t he deserve a vacation?
“Dolittle” isn’t it, except perhaps for the youngest and most undemanding of audiences. Nor can Downey blame anyone else for this clattery, splattery mess of a family movie, since he and his wife, Susan Downey, produced it. They have young children; perhaps this is what Hollywood couples do in lieu of bedtime reading.
It’s the third movie go-round for Hugh Lofting’s much-loved children’s books and their hero — a doughty Victorian-era doctor who can talk to animals in their own various languages — and it may be time to throw in the towel. “Dolittle” isn’t a freestyle modern update like the Eddie Murphy film (1998) nor an inert musical disaster like the 1967 Rex Harrison version. It’s mostly a relentlessly digitally animated romp that has everything except a script, which, somehow, four people still managed to work on.
Downey’s Dolittle is introduced pining for his wife, the explorer Lily, who died at sea leaving him a heavily bearded recluse living on an estate with his menagerie: the bossy macaw Poly (voiced by Emma Thompson), timid gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), polar bear Yoshi (John Cena), meddlesome duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), and neurotic ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani). Other critters are voiced by Craig Robinson, Selena Gomez, Ralph Fiennes, and Marion Cotillard — an incredible roster of talent wasted on lame, slangy comeback lines of the sort you find in a “Chipmunks” movie.
The live-action actors fare somewhat better. Downey does amusing and nearly convincing things with what I think is a Welsh accent, but at least he’s creating a character. The doctor is called to the bedside of the ailing young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) and sent on an ocean voyage to find an antidote for her illness; even the slowest young audience member will see that she’s being poisoned by an obsequious Lord (Jim Broadbent, acting with his muttonchops). Accompanying Dolittle is the young Stubbins (Harry Collett), a hunter’s son who has come out of the closet as an animal lover and signs up to be the doctor’s apprentice. (Stubbins’s opposite number, the Queen’s attendant, played by the graceful Carmel Laniado, has to be content to wait at home — this is a boy’s adventure.)
“Dolittle” hops nonsensically from one sequence of peril to another, with little to no connective tissue; again, this won’t bother the youngest audiences, but their parents might want to bring a book. They should put it down whenever Michael Sheen shows up as a fatuous prat of a rival academic or Antonio Banderas commandeers the screen as King Rassouli, an island monarch whose existential weariness seems left over from his Oscar-nominated turn in “Pain and Glory.”
Sheen and Banderas and Broadbent know what kind of movie they’re in: a cartoon to be played as broadly and goofily as possible. Downey, by contrast, seems stuck between gears, neither particularly realistic nor enjoyably outre. The star’s “Sherlock Holmes” films can be headache-inducing poxes upon the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but at least Downey is in his element there as an arrogant rogue smarter than you and I. Here he’s an absent-minded professor upstaged by hyperactive CGI action and the broad comic byplay of the animals. He’s effectively the movie’s emcee, nothing more.
I don’t recall a fire-breathing dragon (Frances de la Tour) in the Lofting books, but I guess today’s third-graders, weaned on “Game of Thrones,” expect no less. I definitely don’t recall a scene in which the good doctor has to perform a rectal probe on said dragon, with much comic passing of gas. If that strikes you as hilarious, by all means go with God. Otherwise, stick with the books. And while I understand Downey wanting to make a movie for his kids, the world might be better served if, at long last, he made one for himself.
Directed by Steven Gaghan. Written by Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, and Thomas Shepherd, based on the books by Hugh Lofting. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Harry Collett, Antonio Banderas, the voices of Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 101 minutes. PG (some action, rude humor, brief language)