ROBERT Downey Jr talks to creatures great and small but fails to communicate effectively with cinema goers in a special effects-clogged odyssey inspired by Hugh Lofting’s 1922 book.

Director Stephen Gaghan, who won an Academy Award for gritty thriller Traffic, searches in vain for animal magic as he shepherds a fantastical caper from the streets of Victorian London to far-flung island locales in which Downey Jr adopts a strangulated Welsh accent, which varies in thickness from one scene to the next.

It’s a perplexing creative choice by the Iron Man star with no dramatic pay-off.

Humour misses the mark with alarming frequency and a climactic comic set-piece involves the doctor forcibly unclogging a creature’s swollen bowels.

He inhales a gale-force blast of flatulence as a reward. Regrettably, it’s not the only thing that stinks.

Following the death of his adventurer wife (Kasia Smutniak), gifted veterinarian Dr John Dolittle (Downey Jr) closes the doors to his animal hospital.

He becomes a recluse, surrounded by a menagerie of chums including bespectacled lurcher Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), wise macaw Polynesia (Emma Thompson), self-doubting gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), polar bear Yoshi (John Cena) and ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani).

The unexpected intrusion of a boy called Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) coincides with an urgent summons to Buckingham Palace.

Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has been poisoned with a pernicious variety of nightshade and the only remedy is the fruit of the mythical Eden tree. Dolittle and apprentice Tommy head to an isle of bandits ruled by King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), with fierce rival Dr Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen) in hot pursuit.

Gaghan’s film does little to engage family audiences, interspersing a haphazard storyline with digitally rendered critters including a vengeful tiger (Ralph Fiennes) and paranoid squirrel (Craig Robinson). Downey Jr doesn’t lay claim to a single laugh while Nanjiani fares slightly better as the self-loathing ostrich, who opines: “My father was right about me. He said I should have been an omelette.”

Every time his flightless bird buries his head in the sand, we contemplate joining him.

RATING: 4/10