Robert Downey Jr. Electrifies the Classic Tale ‘Dolittle’

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Doctor Dolittle is a brilliant grump, but one who has mastered almost all animal languages. The once-promising physician has suffered a devastating loss with the death of his wife. Since her passing, he has grown weary of people and doesn’t care about anyone or anything anymore.

Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, he sets course for an uncharted island alongside his furry friends to embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.

When global superstar Robert Downey Jr. decided that his first post-Marvel Universe project would be tackling the beloved veterinarian’s journey—and returning the inspired narrative to its Victorian England roots—a hero for a new generation of cinematic adventure seekers was born.

Downey in creating the character of Dr. Dolittle, chose to make him a Welshman. “I thought about the character as someone who has become a hermit and isolated himself due to trauma or emotional disappointment,” Downey says. “He’s taken it upon himself to help animals only, but he’s really given up on humanity. He secreted himself to this estate that was gifted him by the queen. I thought it’d be even better if he’s Welsh because, even though the Welsh are part of England, they give the English a lot of guff.”

That choice, however, presented some challenges. “It turns out it was the single hardest accent on Earth and drove me crazy,” Downey says. “At least for the running time of the movie, it will be able to stand up to scrutiny. It’s close to a Gaelic-origin language, and I had a lot of fun doing it. Michael Sheen (starring as Dr. Blair) was very much a proponent, and he gave me some tips. He told me about conversations he’d have with his dad, so I taped Michael a lot when we were doing it and I brought in a Welsh coach.”

While Dolittle is a larger-than-life character in Lofting’s novels, the reader isn’t afforded the luxury of exploring the veterinarian’s flaws. Downey’s Dolittle is far more complex.

“Robert wanted to craft an authentic character who was quirky and vulnerable,” producer Jeff Kirschenbaum explains. “Out of that, a heroism arose.” Downey was also thinking as a producer, beyond his own character. “He was focused on how we could take this movie and expand the audience,” Kirschenbaum says. “Robert was constantly coming up with ideas and characters. He is much like Dolittle himself, wrapping his arms around everybody around him. In front of the camera and behind it, he is incredibly inclusive and generous.”

The film’s director appreciated Downey’s unpredictable direction and intellect. “At any moment, he could make you laugh, but he’s a little bit dangerous,” Stephan Gaghan says, “and that’s the Dolittle that we find. Dolittle is smarter than everyone else. He’s shut the world away and lives with a family of animals because he doesn’t want to deal with humans. The animals sort of do what he wants but operate in conspiracies around him. Robert plays off that. He has a physical-comedy gene and can do any pratfall as well as the most technical acting. When we meet him in the film, Dolittle has moved from mourning to self-pity, the animals are tired of it, and all this is the stew from which Robert built his character.”

Producer Susan Downey says of the film, “It reminds me of those classic movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. 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.”

For all ages, Robert Downey Jr. stars in the epic adventure, Dolittle in theaters January 17th, along with Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard.