Robert Downey Jr.‘s Doctor Dolittle movie has already seen its release date pushed nine months, and now we know why — it was in desperate need of surgery. Universal and producers Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum and Susan Downey saw an early cut of the big-budget movie and decided to bring in Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) to help director Stephen Gaghan save the patient, so to speak.
To recap, The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle finds a live-action Downey playing the unconventional doctor who can speak to CG animals. Rex Harrison played the title character in the original 1967 movie, while Eddie Murphy starred in a pair of hit comedies roughly 20 years ago. This version boasts an all-star cast including Tom Holland, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Selena Gomez, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Octavia Spencer, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Antonio Banderas, Craig Robinson and Carmen Ejogo — most of whom voice Dolittle’s animal friends.
Universal has a lot riding on the new Doctor Dolittle movie, which is budgeted at $175 million, before marketing and distribution costs. Now, reshoots are typical of most blockbuster tentpoles, of course, but not quite to this extent, and it’s rare that a studio would bring in two filmmakers to help the original director right the ship. According to the Hollywood Reporter, McKay came in first to assess Gaghan’s cut and come up with some new ideas, as well as oversee the writing of new material, given his and Downey’s knack for irreverent comedy. The studio wanted him to direct the reshoots — which called for 21 additional shooting days — but he wasn’t available, so he recommended Liebesman, who he worked with on TMNT. Apparently, Gaghan remained on set and worked alongside Liebesman, who was thrown into the fire with little prep time.
This begs the question as to why Universal greenlit a $175 million children’s movie from the director of Syriana in the first place. Sure, he may have an Oscar for writing Traffic, but he has no experience with family films or comedy, let alone extensive visual effects, which is why he struggled with the hybrid elements of the project. That seems like a foreseeable problem, to me. And it goes without saying that it’s entirely possible that none of this behind-the-scenes drama matters if the finished film works. No one cares how the sausage gets made… so long as it tastes good. The problem is that most films that undergo this kind of extensive overhaul don’t turn out so great. Too many cooks in the kitchen and all that. Gaghan will remain as the sole director on the project, but now we know that Liebesman and McKay played a large part in getting the CG animal-driven scenes to where they needed to be. As they say, filmmaking is indeed a team effort!
Universal has been aware it had a so-called problem child on its hands when it first delayed the film from April 2019 to January 2020, but clearly they think it can be saved. Liebesman is certainly a smart hire, looking at it from the perspective of a studio executive. I’m not a big fan of anything on Liebesman’s resume, but the first TMNT worked, and surely the studio thought that if he could work his magic on the Ninja Turtles, he could do the same with the talking animals who keep Dolittle company.
According to THR, Disney’s Jungle Cruise and Sony’s Spider-Man: Far From Home will both undergo reshoots soon, which isn’t a big surprise, although Peter Parker sure is cutting it close since he’s due back in theaters in July. There hasn’t been any word yet on whether additional filmmakers will be brought in to fix those pictures, as was the case with Doctor Dolittle.