Dolittle’s most indisputably unglued sequence takes place toward the end of the movie’s third-act. On the heels of a climactic battle, Robert Downey Jr. — as a human-shunning physician who can communicate with a menagerie of CGI animals — diagnoses what has been ailing a mythical dragon: constipation. Our hero goes shoulder-deep to unclog the anal blockage, yanking out both human remains and a set of bagpipes — literal junk in the trunk — to relieve the beast. And by way of thanks, Dr. Dolittle gets a gigantic fart in the face. “Teamwork makes dreams work!” a polar bear voiced by John Cena inexplicably declares.
Over Dolittle’s opening weekend in theaters, teamwork failed to save the $175 million project from the box office equivalent of infrequent bowel movement. Taking in an estimated $29.5 million over the four-day holiday release corridor, and an even more lackluster $17 million internationally, the PG-rated action film is not expected to cover its enormous production and marketing costs. What was once foreseen to be a franchise in the making is now officially 2020’s first major flop.
Dolittle was, in fact, directed by team, even though Stephen Gaghan retains sole “directed by” credit on the film. Last spring, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles filmmaker Jonathan Liebesman and The Lego Batman Movie helmer Chris McKay were brought on by Dolittle’s distributor Universal Pictures for extensive rewrites and reshoots. That rejiggering — reportedly in the service of amping up Downey’s characteristic wisecracks while also increasing Dolittle’s toilet humor to connect with younger viewers and overseas audiences — resulted in a nine-month release delay. But neither those costly revisions, nor an all-star roster of vocal talent (including Kumail Nanjiani, Selena Gomez, Tom Holland, Jason Mantzoukas, and Octavia Spencer) were enough to prevent a cascade of blistering reviews, many taking issue with the film’s slapdash CGI and Downey’s inexplicably awful Welsh-by-way-of-Jamaica accent.
Marking his initial outing with both computer-generated filmmaking and family fare, Gaghan was widely considered an out-of-left-field choice for the Dolittle directing job. The Kentucky-born screenwriter behind Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic is known for crafting ambitiously intellectual thrillers like 2005’s Syriana (which Gaghan wrote and directed). He’s never demonstrated, publicly at least, the remotest facility with physical humor, visual effects, or the kind of production omniscience required by a movie with a nine-figure budget. In fact, Gaghan’s most recent filmic outing, the 2016 Matthew McConaughey bio-drama Gold, slunk from theaters, a critical and commercial dud.
If unconfirmed, widely cited, and now-deleted Reddit grumblings from an anonymous source close to the Dolittle production are to be believed, Gaghan’s inexperience with the vagaries of digital moviemaking resulted in an animal kingdom’s worth of chaos. In October, the unidentified insider lamented Dolittle’s “production hell,” calling Gaghan a “batshit director” and singling out for critique Gaghan’s lack of finesse with later-to-be-animated computer characters.
“[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 fucking moron,” the anonymous person wrote. “We attempted to talk and show the director some cinematic sense, but he was literally insane, almost put a fist through a new 8k tv because the talking Goose wasn’t onscreen while it was talking in one shot.”
Dolittle has yet to open in 20 international markets, platforming into Western Europe next weekend and China next month, but most industry observers hold little hope that it will perform overseas. According to The Wrap, film-finance experts project a loss of $100 million on the project for Universal — the studio’s second consecutive flop after the commercial and critical catastrophe of Cats. Ultimately, there is no masking Dolittle’s aroma of failure, but for at least some would-be moviegoers, the film’s dragon farts seem to be the movie’s one saving grace.