“We have far less important places to be!” crows John Dolittle, a most peculiar doctor who can talk to animals, as he waltzes out of Buckingham Palace at the end of the goofy new talking-animals kid flick Dolittle, and given that the titular role is played by none other than Robert Downey Jr., a far less important place to be describes the whole movie, also. God bless this smarmy and lovable dude, this superstar eccentric who emerged from 2019’s Avengers: Endgame with more money than God and a higher Q rating. Iron Man is dead; the man who played Iron Man and thereby birthed the unkillable Marvel Cinematic Universe is free. Free to do whatever he wants to do, to be wherever he wants to be, to make whatever kind of movie he wants to make. The first thing Downey wanted to do, apparently, was to give a dragon an enema.
Dolittle is the sort of movie in which a skittish gorilla (voiced by Rami Malek) overcomes his various fears and saves the day by kicking a vicious tiger (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) in the nuts. This is not a complaint; my two young sons (6 and 8) certainly weren’t complaining. They especially liked it when a blustery squirrel (voiced by Craig Robinson) cries “I’m too beautiful to die!” shortly before Dolittle begins treating the squirrel’s gunshot wound by giving the animal mouth-to-mouth. They also liked it when the dragon farted, pre-enema. Less clear to me is whether they liked Dolittle himself, in part because I assume that they, like me, struggled greatly to understand anything he was saying.
Because another thing Downey wanted to do, apparently, was brazenly echo Johnny Depp’s role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the once-unkillable Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Eddie Murphy, of course, was the last true star to assume the Dolittle role, doing so for two of his more tolerable populist blockbusters in 1998 and 2001, but no, Downey’s going the Full Depp here. Meaning that this particular vision of Dr. Dolittle is wildly disheveled (before various animals groom him back to respectability pre–Buckingham Palace), kids-movie eccentric (with a flamboyant 19th-century-English-or-maybe-Irish accent that sounds vaguely pornographic), and possesses a bizarre tendency to mumble, to whisper, to wheeze, to flirt shamelessly with total incoherence. All his dialogue sounds dubbed; most of it is quite difficult to make out. Maybe wait until you can watch this movie with subtitles.
Or don’t. “I don’t care about anyone or anything anywhere anymore,” I think Dolittle says. (As we learn in the storybook prologue, his saintly wife died in a shipwreck, and he is languishing on his own personal nature preserve in Thanos-style disheveled isolation, save for all the talking animals.) “I knew I shouldn’t have had monkeys proofread the contract,” I think Dolittle says. (He must find some mystical tree that will offer up some precious medicine that will save the life of an ailing Queen Victoria—played by a disconcertingly crabby Jessie Buckley—lest her death result in his getting contractually kicked out of his personal nature preserve.) “We have no choice but to embark on this perilous journey,” I think Dolittle says, and neither do you, if you want to see the great Robert Downey Jr. onscreen again, which of course you do.
The Avengers: Endgame scene I keep returning to is the mid-final-battle reunion between Iron Man and Spider-Man, very arguably the single greatest MCU moment overall. Everything you need to know about how the franchise got so dominant—and remains so goddamn appealing despite its world-cinema-destroying dominance—is right there in Downey’s face, which makes me tear up every time. The unguarded shock, the somehow tender scowl, the genuinely joyful double-clutch hug these movies had been teasing for years. It’s a profoundly human moment amid all that profoundly inhuman multibillion-dollar-franchise spectacle, and it’s the sort of gesture Downey excelled at from 2008’s MCU-inaugurating Iron Man onward, and the reason Endgame doubled as an extensive tribute to his greatness. The franchise will survive without him, of course. But it maybe wouldn’t exist without him.
Dolittle is Downey’s first non-MCU movie since the 2014 legal drama The Judge, in which Robert Duvall, unfortunately, does not kick a tiger in the nuts; it also technically serves as another Iron Man and Spider-Man reunion, in that Tom Holland, a.k.a. Spidey himself, voices a talking dog who wears glasses. (Still not a complaint.) As directed by the Oscar-winning Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan—who also wrote and directed Syriana, and whose last movie, the 2016 Matthew McConaughey misfire Gold, could’ve used a talking dog—Dolittle is not exactly a plot situation. But you knew that, and likely even prefer it.
So: There are two blank-faced preteen actors (Harry Collett as the commoner-apprentice Stubbins, Carmel Laniado as the regal Lady Rose) mostly tasked with looking on adoringly as Downey whoops like a gorilla and whatnot. There is a grieving pirate king named Rassouli who is played by Antonio Banderas and whose tiger, as previously mentioned, gets kicked in the nuts. There is a sniveling villain named Dr. Blair Müdfly who is played by Michael Sheen, who does greatly enjoy sniveling. (Even the talking whales agree that Müdfly has a weak chin.) There is the aforementioned medicinal-tree MacGuffin that requires sailing into the Baffling Archipelago. Climatically: dragon enema.
There are also, of course, tons of talking animals: Emma Thompson the macaw, Kumail Nanjiani the ostrich, Selena Gomez the giraffe, Jason Mantzoukas the dragonfly. The parents in my theater laughed loudest when a squid, asked by Dolittle in squid language to explain why the queen has fallen ill, responded with, “Snitches get stitches.” Second-loudest adult laugh: When a polar bear voiced by John Cena says, “My dad said he was going out for a pack of seals and never came back.” A 10 a.m. Saturday screening of a talking-animals movie is not a tough room; it is a respite from a tough lifestyle. The closest Downey gets to an emotional Iron Man–Spider-Man moment is when Dolittle and the dragon discuss grief, briefly, pre-enema. You will get nothing out of Dolittle other than exactly what you came to it for, which is two hours or so of moderate child amusement.
To sass Downey for launching his post-MCU career with this is to misunderstand his odd and forever alluring essence, which is served best not by capital-D Dramas (Tropic Thunder has somehow aged far better than The Soloist) but by capital-S blockbuster Subversion. (Recall that his Tropic Thunder character is in blackface.) Dolittle is not very good and certainly not subversive in the slightest, but it’d be far, far worse if it were. No doubt that the Artist Formerly Known as Iron Man is concocting all manner of baffling and controversial schemes to unleash in the years to come. For now, let him mildly amuse your children by life-coaching a gorilla. You won’t catch a lot of the words he actually says. But you will understand his meaning, and his purpose here, perfectly. Monkeys, I can assure you, did not proofread his contract.