Based on the 1923 Newbery Medal-winning novel The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, Universal Pictures’ $175 million adaptation called Dolittle is sailing into movie theaters on January 17.
Following his impressive run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey Jr. stars as the eponymous eccentric doctor in this reboot, which hews closely to Lofting’s second novel featuring the zoolinguist. Downey Jr. reprises a role popularized by Eddie Murphy in two comedies, Dr. Dolittle (1998) and Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001), which took the titular character from Lofting’s series but adapted no actual material from the works. An earlier adaptation, Doctor Dolittle (1967), combined the first three books into a musical film starring Rex Harrison.
In this rendition, Dolittle is a 19th century doctor and veterinarian grieving the loss of his wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak), who died in an accident at sea seven years earlier. When Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) becomes dangerously ill, Dolittle and his associates, including young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) and a menagerie of animal pals, set out for a mythical island where they might find the cure. Plenty of hijinks ensue along the way, with old foes reemerging and new creatures revealing themselves.
Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, and Jim Broadbent star in live-action roles, and a large number of well-known actors and actresses lend their voices to the CGI animals: Emma Thompson, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Rami Malek, Craig Robinson, Marion Cotillard, and more.
Dolittle is directed and co-written by Stephen Gaghan, perhaps best known as the director and writer of the geopolitical thriller Syriana. Notably, Syriana secured Gaghan a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2005. Gaghan is also renowned for the crime drama Traffic, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000. Gaghan, Dan Gregor, and Doug Mand wrote the screenplay for Dolittle, with a story by Thomas Shepherd.
But the selection of Gaghan for director and co-writer of a big budget family film perhaps foreshadowed deeper issues. The adaptation, announced in March 2017 and filmed from March to June 2018, was supposed to grace screens on April 12, 2019, but was pushed back nine months to January 17, 2020. After unfavorable preliminary test screenings, Universal and producers brought in Chris McKay, of Lego Batman Movie fame, to do some script doctoring, and Jonathan Liebesman, director of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to help direct the reshoots.
Whether that was enough to save the film in the eyes of the general public is yet to be determined.