I admit, I'm impressed Dolittle exists. When a studio spends $175 million (that they're willing to report in public!) on a production, you expect that there's going to be some level of soulless quality control involved: this will be buffed and clipped sanded into a flavorless blob, but by God it will not be terrible. Nobody will be embarrassed. Sort of like how Disney is more than capable of producing Solo: A Star Wars Story, but we're never, ever going to see a Disney-made Attack of the Clones.

Well, I do expect - in fact, I hope - that a lot of people are suitably embarrassed by Dolittle. The third big-screen incarnation of Hugh Lofting's Victorian veterinarian who can talk to animals had to clear literally the lowest bar that I can think of: it needed to be better than the embalmed corpse of 1967's Doctor Dolittle, and the shrill 1998 Eddie Murphy comedy Dr. Dolittle. It has not managed to be better than either, which almost feels like it would have been harder to carry off.

The film exists as the end point of a horribly tortured production that pushed the film back several months from its original release date, after test screening suggesting that director and co-writer Stephen Gaghan's vision was unlikable and joyless. Ha ha, test audiences, joke's on you: the thing that has come into being on the backside of a month of costly reshoots conducted by Jonathan Liebesman and Chris McKay, sometimes with Gaghan's input and sometimes not, is pretty damn unlikable and joyless all on its own. And even if that wasn't enough, it's genuinely incompetent, something that almost never happens anymore. There is perhaps no moment that more perfectly typifies how ghastly of an experience Dolittle is than something that happens about two-thirds of the way through its years-long 101 minutes: Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his crew of animals voices by celebrities have determine that they need to go to the island of the pirates, Monteverde, where Dolittle once lived with his dead wife, the daughter of King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas, who seems to be enjoying himself). This involves concocting a complicated scheme that involves multiple parties working across the island, while Dolittle and his human boy assistant Stubbins (Harry Collett) sneak up the cliffside where Rassouli's castle is located. All of this - from "we need to go to Monteverde" up to the point that Dolittle and Stubbins make it into the castle, is presented in the form of a montage over which Polynesia the parrot (Emma Thompson) narrates everything that's going on. This is halfway through a movie that has not, to this point, used voiceover.

There's no moment that's more clearly a desperate post-production gambit, hoping that a few dog-ends and voiceover narration will be able to do the work of storytelling in the absence of actual scenes. But the whole movie is crisscrossed with such surgical scars. The cutaways to the wacky animals - which all speak English, though the film manages to visually indicate that actually, they're all speaking animalese, and we're listening in English for convenience's sake, with a push in to Dolittle's mouth; it's maybe the one actually good thing that happens in the entire movie, and it's stolen wholesale from The Hunt for Red October - as I was saying, the cutaways to the wacky animals are very conspicuously always singles, and they're always exactly the length of some deeply unamusing and often anachronistic one-liner. It feels like they've been spliced into the film without any consideration beyond the purely mathematical: "we need one joke here, we two jokes here, we need two jokes followed by a reaction shot here..." The actual lines, which animal delivers them, and what's going on in the film at that moment, all feel entirely disconnected from each other.

The plot that undergirds all of this is just as half-assed and fragementary as the cutting: Dolittle's wife is dead, I mentioned, and it made him a misanthropic hermit, so angry and sad that he's not even keeping up with his veterinary practice. Two visitors are about to change this: Stubbins comes with a red squirrel (voiced, horribly, by Craig Robinson) that has been shot and needs abdominal surgery; Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), apparently a high-ranking member of the court despite being, like, 10 years old (it is implied, for a half-second, that she's the queen's illegitimate daughter, but I think this is probably an accident), has news that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) is dying of a wasting disease and only Dolittle can cure her. He doesn't care, but if the queen goes, so does the nature preserve where he lives. So off he goes with Stubbins and several animal friends on a nautical mission to find a rare, magical tree with the cure for the poison that has been served to the queen, while Lord Badgley (Jim Broadbent) and Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, amusing himself by cranking everything up to 110%) plot about how they can kill Dolittle at sea to preserve their other plot about killing the queen, so Badgley can become king, I think, because this film understands the hell out of the English line of succession.

This is almost exclusively an excuse to throw a bunch of CGI animals at the camera and let them tell painful jokes. We have, let's see: Yoshi, a polar bear wearing a knit cap that makes him look like a 2000s skater boy, voiced by John Cena, and prone to saying "bro", in the 1840s; Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani), an ostrich who's a generic kids' movie neurotic; Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), a gorilla with a crippling anxiety disorder; Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), a sassy black woman in the body of a duck; Tutu (Marion Cotillard), a fox who is also a French lesbian for some reason. I'm not going to keep doing this, holy shit it's terrible. By all means, Yoshi is the worst of it, but this is a film not in much possession of "good" talking animal characters, and he doesn't get any of the specifically worst moments. Ralph Fiennes, for example, voices a tiger named Barry, who is the worst-looking of the film's many shitty CGI creatures ($175 million apparently doesn't go as far as it used to), and who gets kneed in the groin by Chee-Chee. "Tigers don't have a groin", you are maybe saying right now. Dolittle thinks you can go fuck yourself. Anyway, the moment ends with the tiger saying "Oh, Barry's berries", which if nothing else means that the race for the worst single joke of any 2020 movie has been clinched awfully early.

Lording over this, Downey is playing Dolittle as a combination of sorrowful moral philosopher, boundlessly optimistic enthusiast, and hate crime against the Welsh. Obviously, the man has the right to do something that isn't Tony Stark, and I'm sure he was excited to put on an accent, but this accent? Dear God, no. Even calling it "Welsh" is only a guess; the whispery, sing-song voice Downey is using is so far afield from anything a human being has ever spoken with that I'd believe it if you told me he was trying for South African, or Jamaican, or Swedish. Setting aside the voice, Downey's performance is butchered in the editing and let down by the visual effects, which rarely get closer than almost placing animals in his line of sight. It's not a character, it's a series of close-ups that have been used to indicate the shape that a character might later on be able to inhabit. In that respect, it's a perfect fit for a movie that summarises scenes it didn't have an opportunity to include, and has regularly-spaced animal jokes instead of narrative structure. It is surreally misconceived and brutally unfunny, ending with a fart-joke climax clearly included because they couldn't come up with anything that was actually appealing or comprehensible, so they just decided to make the dumbest kids in the audience happy for two minutes. It's astonishing how bad this is at fundamentals like mixing post-dubbed dialogue and cutting between shot scales, and how obviously it feels like the result of reshoots that hadn't been planned out properly and weren't incorporated with the existing footage correctly. It is the messiest big-budget film I have seen in years. And it's come from Universal, less than a month after Cats! I have no idea which executive at that studio is trying to destroy it from within, but they're doing a hell of a good job.