After hanging up the Iron Man armour that not only redeemed his career but took it to incomparable new heights, you might expect Robert Downey Jr. to take one of several paths.
Perhaps he would naturally gravitate towards a smaller scale arthouse picture as a change of pace from blockbuster life, or instead step behind the camera to finally make his directorial debut. And no-one would forgive him for simply taking a break; after all, who wouldn’t want a little downtime after playing a superhero for the better part of a decade?
What you probably wouldn’t expect the A-lister to do, however, would be to take on the role of the titular character in a seemingly underwhelming new adaptation of Doctor Dolittle from writer-director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) – but that’s exactly where we’ll next see him on the big screen.
A surprising choice for the world’s biggest star, perhaps Downey’s two youngest children influenced his decision to attach himself to a film suitable for all ages for the first time since 2006’s Shaggy Dog. And it’s a family affair in more ways than one, with wife Susan Downey producing and the couple’s joint production company, Team Downey, also involved in the project.
Robert Downey Jr. is no stranger to portraying classic British figures, both real and fictional. His turn as Charlie Chaplin in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin in 1992 earned him an Oscar nomination, while he’s lined up to reprise his role as Sherlock Holmes for the third time in 2021.
Perhaps, then, jumping into the shoes of a Victorian medical extraordinaire possessing the uncanny ability to speak to animals isn’t as unlikely as it may seem. Originally created by Hugo Lofting to brighten up the letters he sent to his children from the trenches of the First World War, Dr. John Dolittle then became a fully-fledged literary character since portrayed on stage and screen by a variety of actors over the decades.
However, production on the newest incarnation of the doctor’s adventures hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. The film has been renamed (from The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle to just Dolittle), subjected to reshoots (21 days’ worth, to be precise), and its release rescheduled (a result of the aforementioned reshoots, as well as to avoid competition with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker).
In addition, directors Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) were brought on to assist with the reshoots and bring the project back on track after poor test screenings, while an alleged crew member even took to Reddit to expose apparent production controversy.
This is more drama than might be expected of a generic family adventure. As per the film’s synopsis, Dolittle joins the renowned doctor and veterinarian seven years after the death of his wife, sealed away in his manor with only an eclectic collection of exotic animals for company. When the young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) becomes dangerously ill, Dolittle reluctantly embarks on a quest to find a cure on a far-off mystical island, predictably rediscovering his courage along the way.
You wouldn’t necessarily glean the entirety of this simple plot from the film’s first trailer, which doesn’t seem to know what it wants to give its audience beyond a plethora of CGI animals and Robert Downey Jr. speaking a few lines of vague dialogue in an apparent Welsh accent.
Bafflingly, it barely even hints at its all-star cast: those lending their vocal talent to Dolittle’s animal menagerie of everything from a ‘cynical ostrich’ to ‘an anxious gorilla’ include Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland and Selena Gomez, while Downey’s live-action accomplices include Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen and Jim Broadbent.
On paper, Dolittle promises to be a solid, star-studded family adventure piloted by the trademark wit and charm of its lead, but the very little we’ve been shown thus far gives away next to nothing. It’s possible the first trailer was released with a lot of time in the cutting room still remaining, meaning the final version could be anyone’s guess. Downey’s attachment offers hope that at least a little magic will shine through, but whether his performance is enough to overcome the bumpy road of production remains to be seen. We’ll just have to wait until February to find out.
Dolittle is scheduled for release in the UK on 7th February 2020. More info here.