It would be an exaggeration to say that Dolittle has a plot. The viewing experience more resembles a series of malfunctioning screen savers in which Downey Jr. twitches his head left and right while animals gallivant around him, complaining of various ailments while tossing off hacky one-liners. The only part of this horrifying tableau that changes is the scenery. Sometimes Dolittle is in the whimsically ramshackle mansion where he lives with his various bestial patients and nurses a broken heart over a long-lost love; sometimes he’s on a boat sailing the high seas, or in an oceanic pirate nation, or in a mysterious dragon-guarded cave. How he gets to these places is mostly unclear, though some very eager narration by a parrot called Polynesia (played by Emma Thompson) tries to explain away every storytelling inconsistency.
The tale she’s tasked with justifying is as follows: Dolittle, a gruff man with a faltering Welsh accent (one of several baffling performance choices by Downey Jr.), is drafted into service by two plucky young children named Tommy (Harry Collett) and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado). His mission, you see, is to save Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who has fallen into a coma, possibly because she’s being poisoned by her aides-de-camp Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen) and Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent). The only way to revive Her Majesty is to retrieve a magical fruit from a hidden kingdom. The perilous journey requires the involvement of almost all of Dolittle’s furry friends, including an ornery polar bear (John Cena), a wisecracking ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), and a cowardly gorilla (Rami Malek).
The events in the above paragraph may sound like feverish ramblings. In reality, they are the components of a narrative so bowdlerized, only a boardroom of studio executives could have created it. Any emotional through line that was originally intended for this film has long since vanished, although there are vestigial hints of a more sensical character arc involving Dolittle’s withdrawal from society and his efforts to rebuild both his own mental health and the well-being of his animal patients. At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for a scene in which a gorilla named Chee-Chee covers his face with his hands and yells, “I am not a prisoner to fear!”
I can understand why such a project caused enough studio panic to prompt reshoots; those pensive moments in Dolittle may never have worked and certainly stick out here. Yet the lighter material is even more bewildering; the movie is essentially one and a half hours of celebrity voice-overs finding different ways to say, “That’s gotta hurt!” Characters appear and vanish from the action with no explanation; at one point, Dolittle and company are welcomed aboard a new boat by a bearded man who announces “I’m Jeff!” and is never seen or mentioned again. Somehow, the supporting cast of humans emerges largely unscathed—Antonio Banderas is a compelling pirate king, Sheen a hilariously preening villain. But that barely matters in a movie where 90 percent of the dialogue consists of bargain-basement sitcom zingers delivered by ducks and squirrels.