South O’ the Highway

Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey Are Thrilled About ‘Dolittle’

East Hampton actor trades Iron Man for family friendly fun in Victorian England.

East Hampton resident Robert Downey Jr. has traded his superhero armor for eccentric Victorian threads in his upcoming, star studded feature Dolittle, opening next Friday, January 17. Universal Pictures released a flurry of images and press notes, including the poster art, from the expected blockbuster on Thursday.

In addition to starring as the titular character Dr. Dolittle, from Hugh Lofting’s beloved series of classic books (1920–1952), Downey serves as executive producer for the film, costarring a Hollywood who’s who, including voices or appearances by Antonio Banderas; Oscar winners Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Emma ThompsonMarion Cotillard (La Vie en rose) and Octavia Spencer (The Help); Michael SheenJohn Cena and fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe hero Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far from Home), to name a few. Academy Award-winner Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Traffic) directs.

Photo: Universal Pictures

According to the press notes, the latest film adaptation of Lofting’s book series—it was also made into movies in 1967, starring Rex Harrison, and 1998, starring Eddie Murphy—begins seven years after famed British veterinarian John Dolittle (Downey) lost his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak). As the story gets underway, Dolittle has become a hermit, cloistering himself away behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor with his menagerie of exotic animals, which he can communicate with, as his only companions. But when young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) falls gravely ill, the reluctant doctor must set sail on an epic adventure to a mythical island in search of a cure, regaining his wit and courage as he crosses old adversaries and discovers wondrous creatures.

Dr. Dolittle is joined on his quest by young, self-appointed apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett of Dunkirk) and a raucous coterie of animal friends—including Chee-Chee (Malek), an anxious, self-conscious gorilla; Dab-Dab (Spencer), an enthusiastic but bird-brained duck; the bickering duo of cynical, neurotic ostrich Plimpton (The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani) and chilly-but-chill polar bear Yoshi (Cena of WWE and Bumblebee fame); as well as a headstrong parrot named Polynesia (Thompson), who serves as Dolittle’s most trusted advisor, confidante and his reliable conscience.

Antonio Banderas as Rassouli in
Antonio Banderas as Rassouli in “Dolittle,” Photo: Universal Pictures

The epic adventure also features Banderas as pirate king Rassouli, lord of Monteverde Isle; Sheen as Dr. Blair Müdfly, Queen Victoria’s palace physician and Dolittle’s nemesis at university; Carmel Laniado as Lady Rose, who catapults Dolittle and Stubbins on the adventure of a lifetime; and yet another Oscar winner, Jim Broadbent as Lord Badgley, the noble assigned to protect the young queen.

Cotillard plays Tutu, a cunning and courageous fox; Holland stars as Jip, an intelligent and loyal long-haired lurcher dog who is sight-challenged; Selena Gomez is Betsy, an escape-artist giraffe; and Craig Robinson voices Kevin, an injured squirrel who is equal parts brash, honest and spiteful. Additionally, Frances de la Tour (Outlander) plays an ancient dragon suffering from gastrointestinal distress; Jason Mantzoukas (The League) is James, the bug-eyed dragonfly who serves as Dolittle and Stubbins’ insect-on-the-inside at Monteverde; and two-time Academy Award nominee Ralph Fiennes is Barry, a ferocious, gold-toothed tiger with mommy issues.

(clockwise, from bottom left) Ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani), monkeys Elliot and Elsie, parrot Polynesia (Emma Thompson), polar bear Yoshi (John Cena), Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) and sugar glider Mini (Nick A. Fisher) in
Harry Collett as Stubbins with his animal friends in “Dolittle,” Photo: Universal Pictures

When the film was taking shape, Downey quickly became the director’s pick to play Dolittle. Gaghan grew up appreciating Downey as a great actor and began to shape his Dolittle around the performer’s sensibilities. He began writing with Downey in mind. “Actors respect him as a great actor,” Gaghan says. “Once you have Robert inhabiting this character, it felt so fresh, and the voice that came out of me when I was writing felt original, back to where the books were framed. But I didn’t want to be beholden to those ideas. I wanted it to feel modern and have a modern psychology.”

The director’s first meeting with Downey, was pivotal and shaped everything that followed. “We went to meet,” Gaghan says, “and Robert asked, ‘What decisions have been made on this movie already?’ I could say to him, ‘There’s only been one decision, and that’s why we’re here. We want you to be this guy, and everything else is wide open.’ He’s a creative force who becomes a partner and you make the movie together. It was a huge decision, but the right one.”

Octavia Spencer voices duck Dab-Dab in
Octavia Spencer voices duck Dab-Dab in “Dolittle,” Photo: Universal Pictures

Robert and his wife Susan Downey, one of the film’s main producers, saw it as a great creative challenge and opportunity. “Robert and I read it, and we thought that it was so much fun. Who doesn’t want to be able to think they can talk to their animals? At its core, Steve had created this epic adventure that we felt would be good for all audiences and families.”

The Downeys have long believed Dolittle should be an epic adventure for the whole family, as well as a tale of finding family and second chances where you least expect them. “My four-year-old or a 94-year-old grandmother can go and enjoy this movie,” Susan Downey says. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s silly, the scope is big, but there are real themes at its core that—no matter your age, gender or race—it speaks to you.”

With a shooting script by Gaghan and Dan Gregor & Doug Mand, the production was a go. “This is the most magical film we’ve ever done, and that’s saying something,” Robert Downey Jr. says, adding later, “My dad will like the subversive humor. For this generation of kids, sometimes things are rendered to the point of being shockingly photorealistic, or they’re almost two-dimensional in how animated they are. This reminds me more of the kind of movies we had when we were growing up—like Fantasia and Mary Poppins—where there was a mix of both. I feel like Dolittle nails the visual flavor.”

Robert Downey Jr. as Dr. Dolittle in
Robert Downey Jr. as Dr. Dolittle, Photo: Universal Pictures

Susan Downey agrees with that assessment. “It reminds me of those classic movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” she says. “There’s a tremendous amount of subversive humor, with a number of little sidebars. I know for a fact that my kids have a fantasy of being able to talk to animals.”

Dolittle opens in theaters everywhere on January 17.

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