Robert Downey Jr. isn’t able to doctor ‘Dolittle’

Robert Downey Jr. in “Dolittle”

Well, it probably looked good on paper: Robert Downey Jr. as the screen’s latest take on Dr. Dolittle, the quirky medic famously known for talking to animals – and them talking back to him.

Performers as different as Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy made their runs at the role, and now, it’s Downey’s turn to take a crack at it in “Dolittle.” His long-practiced brand of irony brings something new to the part, but not necessarily what it needs. Instead of exuding warmth, this Dr. Dolittle seems to want the animals to get out of his way, much less talk to him.

Mourning the death of his wife, Dolittle has a patron in Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), who needs his professional help when she’s felled by a mysterious illness. He then sets sail to find a cure, but others aren’t keen on his succeeding for various reasons; they include his hostile ex-father-in-law, played by Antonio Banderas, who blames his daughter’s fate on Dolittle.

As long as you have talking animals on your side, though, anything is possible. That voice cast is pretty stellar here, marked by such Oscar winners as Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Marion Cotillard and Octavia Spencer – with others ranging from Ralph Fiennes and John Cena for good and varied measure.

Instead of being pure fantasy like the Harrison version or straight comedy like Murphy’s take, this “Dolittle” tries to be many things to many different segments of the audience. Usually, a situation like that fails at all of the attempts, and that’s pretty much what this does. It’s hard to tell exactly who this is intended for, except perhaps for other animals that talk and want to see their peers on screen.

Downey surely is a brand name in movies, especially after his presence in the blockbuster “Avengers” and “Iron Man” franchises, plus the successful “Sherlock Holmes” capers. However, a certain wise-guy image goes along with that, and that’s not something that author Hugh Lofting’s Dolittle is known for. Sure, it worked for Murphy, but that also was a matter of that entire film matching his trademark approach.

In the end, this “Dolittle” turns out to be quite the mish-mash … even as directed and co-written by another Academy Award winner, Stephen Gaghan of “Traffic” and “Syriana” fame, which doesn’t exactly qualify him as Mr. Light-Hearted Fun. The doctor may still talk to the animals, but this time, his sound is likely to register barely a blip with human moviegoers.

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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