On a spring morning in 2018, Robert Downey Jr. is wending his way through an extras-filled marketplace set on the northern backlot of London’s Pinewood Studio, filming a scene for his latest movie Dolittle (out Jan. 17). In the course of the complicated shot, he will chat with a gorilla-playing actor wearing a special effects-assisting green leotard while also conversing with a non-existent parrot which will be computer-generated onto Downey’s shoulder at a later date and voiced by Emma Thompson. For most movie stars, this sequence would be a testing experience. But after a decade of playing Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Downey admits that today’s labors seem positively down-to-earth. “The Marvel films are literally on this other dimension,” says the actor. “This is essentially a period comedy with a lot of heart.”
Downey is, of course, playing the film’s titular character whose famous ability to communicate with animals was previously depicted in 1967’s Rex Harrison-starring Doctor Dolittle and two more recent, and modern day-situated, Eddie Murphy vehicles (1998’s Dr. Dolittle and 2001’s Dr. Dolittle 2). This new version takes place in the 19th-century setting of Hugh Lofting’s original children’s books and finds Dolittle setting sail on an adventure with his self-appointed apprentice (young actor Harry Collett) to find a cure for the gravely ill Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). Along the way, he encounters Michael Sheen’s villainous character Mudfly and Antonio Banderas’ Pirate King Rassouli, who rules the fictional island on which today’s action takes place. Needless to say, Dolittle also spends time chatting it up with a host of animals, the voice cast for which also includes Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, and Downey’s MCU costar Tom Holland, who plays a dog named Jip.
While Holland and Downey have become fast friends over the past few years, it was the latter’s wife, Dolittle producer Susan Downey, who suggested that the role might get his spidey senses tingling — in a good way. “When the Missus said, ‘We should call Tom and see if he wants to play Jip,’ I was like, ‘Now, hold on, he’s become kind of a big deal, we don’t need him to feel like he owes us something,” says Robert. “She was like, ‘I think he might want to do it.'”
Director and co-writer Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) believes Dolittle is very much a hero for our times. “I came across this script that Tom Shepherd had written for Dolittle and I was just like, God, it’s such a good idea,” says the filmmaker. “I felt myself living [at a time] where everybody just seemed to be screaming at each other across the aisle. I was like, here’s a superhero, if you will, whose superpower is listening. His superhero superpower is empathy and I thought that’d be a great character to have today.”
Following EW’s set visit, the film, originally titled The Voyage of Dr. Dolittle, hit some choppy waters. After the Downey’s see Gaghan’s cut, they decide additional shooting is required and in October 2018 it is announced that the movie’s release date is being pushed from April 2019 to this month. “We realized that we just wanted more with Dolittle and the animals,” says Susan Downey today.
One possible positive about the movie’s delay? Given our current political situation, the film’s message concerning the importance of communication seems even more vital.
“Yeah,” says Robert. “Jeez, Louise.”
“It’s true,” says Susan. “Fortunately, or unfortunately, it’s more pertinent than ever.”