Prior to the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Robert Downey Jr was an actor significantly on the rise. Known as a wonderfully talented young performer who had started to build a brilliant career based on excellent turns in things like Chaplin and Short Cuts, only to almost throw it all away following substance abuse and a series of associated arrests, he was now clean and was once again receiving acclaim for his appearances in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Goodnight and Good Luck and Zodiac. Then he was cast as Tony Stark and before he knew it he was Hollywood’s highest paid actor and the third highest grossing box office star of all time. During his eleven year tenure with the MCU he played Stark ten times with only a handful of appearances in other films (he’s only played two other parts since the first Avengers film in 2012 and one of those was a cameo in Iron Man buddy John Favreau’s Chef) yet in that one role he has again garnered critical as well as financial reward. His career certainly hasn’t been on hold then but it’s kind of plateaued albeit at the uppermost level.
The question is what will Downey Jr be now that he has come out the other side? Will he rest on his laurels, possibly even squandering all the potential of a decade ago and his incredible success since, or will he follow Daniel Radcliffe and Robert Pattinson in constructing an interesting and varied career out of recognition and bankability earned from a popular movie series. The thing he has above all else right now is options, possibly the greatest professional options anyone has had ever.
Well, the project he has chosen right out of the gate is this one, and for sake of giving people the benefit of the doubt let’s consider it a blip. You can see why he opted for this, it’s a new telling of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books that looked like it was going to be a fun family adventure with a big name cast playing an entertaining array of talking animals, but on the journey from pitch to screen something has gone wrong. Dolittle is a pretty poor follow up to headlining Endgame and it is going to do little for Downey Jr’s ongoing reputation. It’s like Michelangelo finishing the Sistine Chapel and then for his next commission handing in his brush cleaning rag after he’s just blown his nose in it.
I don’t want to come down too hard on this film, it is important to note that my ten year old daughter really enjoyed it, but by any measure beyond that admittedly important one it really isn’t very good.
The story is a standard sail away to find a magical object set up. There’s a much better resourced rival trying to stop our hero/get there first and there’s a mystical creature to be bested at the journey’s end. This predictable narrative isn’t a problem in itself but everything around it is so tiresomely executed and none of the jokes seem to land. In fact come to think of it I’m not even sure there were any jokes, just animals flapping their arms around. The writing feels lazy and there is by turn too little or way too much exposition. There’s a lengthy animated sequence at the start relaying a previous story that’s never actually been told before just to get the character to where they want him to be at the beginning and where they don’t leave him for very long. This feels like a cheaty short cut to characterisation. The whole story is also full of cliche at every turn. I did catch one review headline that seemed to take issue with the extended fart sequence towards the end of the film but to be honest this is one of the most sophisticated parts of the movie.
Sadly, considering where I started with this, Downey Jr isn’t very good either. His performance is probably closest to the work he did in Sherlock Holmes but without the confidence or assuredness. I’m also really not sure why the character has a welsh accent but it certainly isn’t because Robert Downey Jr can do one. Newport born Michael Sheen is in the film too and he must have been wincing every time his co-star opened his mouth.
Alongside Downey Jr and Sheen we get Jim Broadbent, Antonio Banderas and Jessie Buckley and the voice cast includes Emma Thompson, Octavia Spencer, Ralph Fiennes and Marion Cotillard. I think this is undoubtedly the worst work any of them have done.
It is all put together by Stephen Gaghan who previously directed Syriana and wrote Soderbergh’s Traffic. I don’t think family comedy is his thing. There appear to have been reshoots and re-edits too as there are a lot of scenes where voices come from off screen and these are as clumsily done as the rest of it.
I’m sure this won’t be typical of what we can expect from Robert Downey Jr from here on in but Chris Evans left The Avengers only to move to a great performance in Knives Out and Scarlett Johansson has just got herself two Oscar nominations. Iron Man, on the other hand, has gone all leaden.
The Ripley Factor:
The female cast consists of a forthright young girl who starts strong but quickly gets left behind, a bedridden Queen Victoria (who is the least Queen Victoriaish Queen Victoria to appear on screen since the rodent version in Basil the Great Mouse Detective) and the world’s greatest explorer who adheres to the Rebecca Principle by being dead before the film even starts.