OK, so I’ve got a pitch for you: It’s a fantasy comedy family movie, starring Tony Stark and an all-star voice cast, about a man who can talk to animals. The guy who wrote Traffic is directing it. One of the directors of Hannibal is doing the cinematography. Tim Burton’s composer is on music duties. And it costs $175m. Are you in on The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle?
Robert Downey Jr. is a strange figure in modern Hollywood history. The prodigal son of celebrated actor-director Robert Downey Sr., the SNL star turned teen movie favourite became a hot name to watch thanks to critically adored performances in Less Than Zero and Soapdish. He got an Oscar nomination for playing Charlie Chaplin, he worked with auteurs like Robert Altman and Oliver Stone, and he even did a drop of Shakespeare. He could sing too! His downfall thanks to drug addiction, multiple arrests, rehab and jail time became another notch on the Hollywood bed-post of cautionary tales, and despite his talent, he became impossible to hire thanks to insurance issues and his history.
And then something weird happened: He became the biggest star on the planet. It’s easy to forget just how big a deal and how massive a risk it was for Jon Favreau and Marvel Studios to hire him to play Iron Man. Even before the MCU became what it is, it was still financially uneasy to cast that Robert Downey Jr. as a leading man in a blockbuster with franchise prospects. But it worked and all of a sudden he was the defining face of a new era of blockbuster cinema. Since then, Downey Jr. has basically decided to be Tony Stark full-time. The scrappy indie titles and auteur-driven dramas he started making his comeback with — think Zodiac, Fur, Charlie Bartlett — faded from his filmography. Why aim for Oscar glory when you’ve got F*ck You money and everyone loves this one thing you do?
Downey Jr. has already said he has no interest in doing small movies that aren’t worth his while, which is understandable given the hard fight to the top he had after falling to his nadir, but still disappointing given that he can do so much more than Tony Stark. That’s not to say he’s going to spend the rest of his days being Iron Man. Along with his wife Susan, RDJ set up the production company Team Downey, intended to launch further projects with himself front and center. The first example of this was The Judge, a creaky prestige drama that did fine at the box office but hardly set the world on fire, except for landing Robert Duvall another Oscar nomination. And now there is The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle.
Yeah, strap yourselves in for this one!
Directed by Stephen Gaghan, who made Syriana, The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle stars Downey Jr. as the eponymous doctor who can talk to the animals. It doesn’t seem to be a musical like the 1960s film or a broad comedy like the Eddie Murphy ones. Rather, this is based more on the original story by creator Hugh Lofting. The animal voice cast currently includes John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Ralph Fiennes, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, and Tom Holland as Jip the dog. Originally scheduled for May 2019, the film was moved to avoid the original release date for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but it is now currently slated for January 2020, the month after that film comes out. As noted by The Hollywood Reporter, the film underwent 21 days of reshoots after poor test screenings, with a new director and writer brought on board to jazz up the story, with the original version’s comedy and CGI elements apparently not holding up as hoped. Oh yeah, and the budget is $175m.
Let me repeat that for the people in the back rows: A HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE MILLION DOLLARS.
The first Transformers movie cost $150m. So did Wonder Woman.
It seems baffling to spend that kind of money on a film that almost reads like an Onion parody of an actor’s bad life choice. It’s also part of Hollywood tradition to blow a crap-ton of money on a Doctor Dolittle movie. In the mid-1960s, 20th Century Fox decided to make a musical based on the Doctor Dolittle stories in the hopes of recreating the critical and commercial success of My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison, who won an Oscar for that movie, was given the lead role. He was such a douchebag to work with that the producers decided to ditch him and get Christopher Plummer instead (so that’s where Ridley Scott got the idea from). But then Harrison decided he did want to do the part but that meant paying Plummer’s salary in full as well. The production itself was total hell because the producers didn’t anticipate that requiring a zoo’s worth of trained animals would require things like quarantine time, preparation for weather, medical care, and poop collection. The locals in Wiltshire where much of the movie was filmed hated the production, the residents of Saint Lucia tried to stone a fake giant snail to death, Harrison was a raging anti-Semite who everyone hated working with, and production had to be suspended for three days because, and I swear I’m not making this up, a giraffe stepped on his own dick. The film was budgeted for $6m. It ended up costing about 3 times that and production took 5 years. Doctor Dolittle became something of a legendary flop, losing Fox millions but gaining them a bunch of Oscar nominations because the Academy has never had taste (if you want a full run-down of the catastrophe of this film, read Mark Harris’s book Pictures at a Revolution). It was one of the films that signaled the end of the blockbuster musical era of Hollywood’s Golden Age and stands as one of the best symbols of what not to do in movie-making.
So why the hell is Robert Downey Jr. spending $175m on this!?
This is the big thing that fascinates me about Downey Jr. He’s the epitome of A-List in the expanded universe franchise age, a major star defined by this one role and how closely it’s tied to his own public persona. He is as much as symbol of this era as he is its star, a sign that Hollywood can offer second chances (for some) and that the face of the proto-typical leading man was shifting. For a lot of us, it feels like such a wasted opportunity to have all that money, all that goodwill and all that talent at your disposal, only to make creative decisions that, at best, are baffling. Perhaps The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle will be Robert Downey Jr.’s masterpiece, the film that completely rewrites his career once more and launches a new age of star-driven family cinema akin to the reboot of Jumanji. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood. But a $175m film with CGI talking animals that isn’t a Disney remake is one extremely hard sell, and the question remains as to whether this is what audiences even want to see Robert Downey Jr. doing. Perhaps that’s the bind he finds himself in. Audiences love him as Tony Stark, but if they don’t come out in droves for other stuff, is it worth it?
Personally, I just want Sherlock Holmes 3.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.