After hanging up Iron Man’s suit last April, Robert Downey Jr. is discovering that it’s hard to find a follow-up franchise. “Dolittle,” the former Marvel star’s attempt to launch a kid-friendly series, is shaping up to be a box office dud, one that shows that even his considerable charms have limits.
Saddled with horrific reviews (The Atlantic’s David Sims dubbed it “one of the worst cinematic fiascos I’ve seen”) and reports of production nightmares, “Dolittle” looks like it’s going to be one of the first high-profile misses of 2020. Extensive re-shoots for the beleaguered fantasy-adventure, about an eccentric veterinarian with a penchant for conversing with his four-legged patients, propelled its price tag above $180 million.
“Robert Downey Jr. is a national treasure, and his success with ‘Iron Man’ and ‘The Avengers’ cemented his status to the multiplex masses. That said, he doesn’t actually have superpowers, ones that can predict or stop the evil forces that can lead to box office bombs,” said Jeff Bock, a media analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last project, and if ‘Dolittle’ tanks like many suspect, he’ll be down, but certainly not out.”
“Dolittle” is on track to generate $20 million to $25 million when it touches down in 4,000 theaters. Though not catastrophic, that’s an anemic start given its hefty cost, and one that likely means it will end up in the red. The movie opened in a handful of international territories, picking up $9 million, and will expand its foreign footprint to 41 additional markets this weekend. But to avoid losing money, “Dolittle” will need to resonate abroad in a big way.
On paper, the project seemed like a winner. An auction for rights to the film attracted interest from the likes of 20th Century Fox and Sony, with Universal ultimately swooping in to land the package. In return, Downey, who produced the film with his wife Susan Downey, got extensive creative control and a $20 million payday.
What Universal got was a mess. Studio executives apparently grew concerned about director Stephen Gaghan’s command of the production. Filmmakers Chris McKay (“The Lego Batman Movie”) and Jonathan Liebesman (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) were reportedly brought in during reshoots to help smooth out the complicated CGI. Gaghan apparently remained involved during that stage of the production, and was reportedly on set. Whatever problems there may have been with the production don’t appear to have been resolved.
“The brand is only as good as the rebranding — and that has been an absolute mess in terms of marketing,” Bock said. “The only bright spot: it’s a family film in a marketplace that is starving for a family film.”
In the latest adaptation of “Dolittle,” Downey’s eponymous doctor — joined by an armada of talking animals voiced by Tom Holland, Selena Gomez and Kumail Nanjiani — reluctantly ventures across land and sea to nurse the young queen of England back to health. Critics, albeit not always impactful for family movies, did little to instill confidence. It holds a bleak 13% average on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes after those including Variety’s Courtney Howard chided the film for doing “very little to stoke the imagination.” But industry watchers don’t expect “Dolittle” to permanently tarnish Downey’s resume.
“Luckily, talent like Robert Downey Jr. is given multiple get-out-of-box-office-jail-free cards. He still has the power to greenlight films based on his star power, but like all these now super-famous actors in the post-‘Avengers’ landscape, they must pick and choose with caution,” Bock said. “One too many missteps, and audiences might start to believe ‘Endgame’ was a bookend to their respective careers. Robert Downey Jr. is too talented to be down for long, but he probably needs to challenge himself a bit more after this debacle.”
It’s possible that “Dolittle” will recover from the blistering critical reception and bad buzz. But it seems increasingly unlikely that Downey will get what he wanted: a new film franchise to rival the ones he helped create with “Sherlock Holmes” and “Iron Man.”
Unless “Dolittle” outperforms expectations, the movie could become another painful misstep for Universal. The studio lost $100 million after “Cats” flopped in spectacular fashion during the holidays. In between the CGI spectacles, Universal has successfully driven “1917,” a World War I epic from director Sam Mendes, to $60 million globally after its first weekend in wide release. After scoring 10 Oscar nominations on Monday, the action drama is expected to see another surge in ticket sales.
Among new movies, Sony is banking on nostalgia to help “Bad Boys for Life” pull ahead of the competition on box office charts. The sequel to 1995’s “Bad Boys” and 2003’s “Bad Boys II” should collect $38 million from 3,740 over the four-day holiday weekend. But some independent tracking services predict that solid reviews could lift that number to $45 million.
The film, which reunites Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as old-school cops (this time taking down the leader of a Miami drug cartel), carries a $90 million production budget. “Bad Boys for Life,” from directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, has generated a mostly positive reception. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman praised the film: “Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bring their A game; they never let us feel like they’re going through the motions.”
Like “1917,” “Little Women,” “Parasite” and other Oscar best picture nominees are also hoping to wring riches from awards plaudits. All of this year’s Academy Award hopefuls, sans Netflix releases “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story,” will return to multiplexes — to varying degrees — to cash in on nominations. But for the most part, the crop of films vying for Hollywood’s top prize have been box office hits. Five of the nine nominees have already surpassed $100 million globally, and “1917” looks to become the sixth.