Dr. Dolittle is a beloved English character from a series of children's books written in the first half of the 20th century, and it's easy to see how a high budget star-studded movie adaptation seemed like a good idea on paper. After all, it's not like this is the first time Hollywood has tried with this property: there's just something about the idea of a man gifted with the magical ability to speak to animals. It's one of those essential "what if" stories that drives Hollywood and that's probably what attracted Robert Downey Jr to it.
Sadly, for everyone involved in the latest adaptation, the reality was quite different. The charm of the now retired Avengers star alone should have made the movie a success but it didn't. It bombed and it bombed hard. When the closest comparison everyone's looking at is whether it's worse than the abomination that was Cats or not, you know something bad is up.
And while he might be the one who takes the greatest portion of flack - because his name's above the door - ex-Iron Man isn't the one to blame. The reality of Dolittle is that the whole production and release of this film was troubled and riddled with the kind of problems you don't just shrug off.
That said, no-one ever intentionally sets out to make a bad movie. So the question here is what exactly went wrong. And while it's tempting to just say everything, there are some very specific issues that led to the film becoming the first big disaster movie of 2020.
3. The First Disastrous Decisions
While it might look like something of an odd choice for Downey Jr to from Tony Stark to the flamboyant English doctor, you can see why the actor would pick up this kind of project. Not only does the property come with the promise of a captive audience (Hollywood seeks money where it's already found it before, no matter how long ago) but it also represented an opportunity for the actor to distance himself from the role that has defined his career for the past decade.
So his reasoning was sound and the studio's reasoning for making another Dolittle movie is BASICALLY sound. It's just a dangerous game to follow the same logic that led to studios making new takes on Robin Hood and King Arthur recently - i.e. the fact that they are established characters - and assuming that star power is enough to make context and ACTUAL audience interest not matter.
And on top of that rocky starting point, the production made some pretty catastrophic errors.
It all starts with a weird choice for a director and screenwriter. He may have proved himself a great film-maker working on award-winning crime dramas and geopolitical thrillers, but Stephen Gaghan wouldn't be many people's first choice when it comes to creating a fun family comedy. So the fact that he was the one the studio turned to is a little odd at very best.
In broad terms, Gaghan does look like the kind of professional that could produce a sure-fire film regardless of the theme - because class is permanent - but something was very wrong from the get-go. Set reports leaked from apparently disgruntled employees calling the director "batsh*t" and lambasting his methods ahead of him being fired in all but official name and replaced by Chris McKay as the writer and Jonathan Liebesman as director.
Here's what one whistleblower allegedly said:
“It was deep in production hell last year, they started filming scenes before they had even planned where the animated animals would be standing, it was nuts. And then the batshit director went and got fired, which was a little too late after his insane outbursts and subsequent banning from stepping foot into both the lead concept department AND the lead Pre-visual animation department.”
If the rumours are to be believed, the issue came down to Gaghan simply not having the experience to make a heavily CGI-led movie. Which meant his approach to shooting such a film was just completely wrong:
“Then he demanded that the previsual department be fired because ‘We can figure it out on the day”, yeah Stephan, you can figure out where 5+ animated characters and Robert.D.Jr are standing when you have 30 individual camera shots to film on a Monday morning, you f*cking moron.”
Technically speaking, the film does look well-shot, even despite those alleged issues, which shouldn't come as a surprise given the director's pedigree, but it was so lacking in the necessary family fun department that reshoots were inevitable. Because smushing the badly fitting jigsaw pieces of the wrong director and a movie he's entirely unsuited to was never going to make a satisfying end product on the first go.