‘Dolittle’ does too much, and none of it well

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The title physician (Robert Downey Jr., right) sets sail with a timid gorilla (Rami Malek) and other animal friends in Dolittle.

By Richard Ades

Talking animals are fun. Robert Downey Jr. is fun. When they’re combined in Dolittle, though, they seem to cancel each other out.

Maybe it’s because the CGI critters steal the spotlight from Downey’s title character. Or maybe it’s because Downey is so preoccupied managing a melodic Welsh accent that he has trouble bringing his character to life.

Then again, maybe it’s because director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) and his committee of co-writers try to do too much. After beginning to tell the touching tale of a doctor who’s avoided human contact since losing his beloved wife, they bury it under a busy plot involving royal intrigue, an aspiring apprentice, a vengeful father and even a dragon with dyspepsia.

Along the way, the doctor gets upstaged by a host of animals with assorted quirks and phobias: among others, a gorilla who’s always afraid (Rami Malek), a polar bear who’s always cold (John Cena), an ostrich who hides from reality (Kumail Nanjiani) and a squirrel who carries a grudge (Craig Robinson). All of these psychological challenges are played for laughs that seldom come.

Example: While discussing absent fathers with an animal friend, the polar bear recalls that one night his own dad went out for a “pack of seals” and never returned. At the screening I attended, the joke failed to elicit so much as a chuckle, even from those old enough to understand it.

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Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) becomes an admirer of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) after asking him to heal a wounded squirrel.

The busy plot is set in motion when two young people coincidentally arrive at Dolittle’s British animal hospital/preserve at the same time. Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) wants the doctor to heal the aforementioned squirrel, whom he accidentally shot; and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) wants him to travel to Buckingham Palace to treat Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who has come down with a mysterious illness.

Urged on by his maternalistic parrot pal (Emma Thompson), Dolittle reluctantly agrees to both requests. The latter ultimately sends him and his friends across the ocean and into a series of perils involving the dastardly Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent), the vicious King Rassouli (Antonio Bandaras) and a really pissed-off tiger (Ralph Fiennes). Unfortunately, the resulting action scenes are filmed so haphazardly that they’re likely to leave viewers as unmoved as the film’s feeble attempts at comedy.

Under any circumstances, Dolittle would be a disappointment. Considering it boasts a huge cast of top-tier actors and an even bigger budget (reportedly $175 million), it’s a disappointment of monumental proportions.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Dolittle (PG) opens Jan. 16 or 17 at theaters nationwide.