For almost 100 years, the whimsical tales of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle have enchanted readers young and old. The hero’s astonishing ability to master the complex tongues of animals great and small has sparked imaginations of audiences in multiple mediums, including literature, radio, stage, television and film. One of literature’s most enduring characters is now vividly re-imagined in Dolittle.
Directed by Academy Award winner Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Traffic), the film’s screen story is by Thomas Shepherd and the screenplay was crafted by Gaghan and Dan Gregor & Doug Mand (CBS’ How I Met Your Mother).
Under their Roth/Kirschenbaum Films banner, which most recently produced Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, producers Joe Roth and Jeffrey Kirschenbaum had been developing the saga for some time. After Thomas Shepherd, Dolittle’s screen story writer, came aboard and adapted Lofting’s book series, the movie began to take shape. But it wasn’t until Gaghan entered the picture that Dolittle began to be fully realized.
For Gaghan, the 1967 Doctor Dolittle film had been formative. “I’d seen the Rex Harrison version at a critical age,” Gaghan says. “I was three or four years old at the time and was just captivated. I think it went in some dark corner of my brain and just nested; it was waiting for 50 years to come out.”
When Gaghan met with the producers to give notes on the story, he found himself acting out scenes he’d like to see in his version of the film. “I’m an animal nut who grew up with a farm in Kentucky,” Gaghan says. “As I’ve raised my own children, I’ve given each one their own story. I’d make up stories for my children every night. Each of my four kids—from five to 19—has gotten their own series, which they think are from books. Instead, I’m flying by the seat of my pants.”
He also showed each of his children the Oscar-winning animated film Spirited Away, from legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki,when each kid was young. “I don’t care if it’s age-appropriate,” Gaghan says. “It’s a perfect film!” All of that – his storytelling to his kids, all the Miyazaki films (watched multiple times with each child), and that indelible memory of the Rex Harrison film helped form his vision for Dolittle. “You let all of that sit for years at a time…and here we are,” he says.
In the simplest sense, Gaghan wanted to create a movie that would be both the first film that his five-year-old would experience in a movie theater, and also one sophisticated enough for his teenagers.
“I wanted my kids to be captivated by it and have that sense of awe and wonder,” Gaghan says. “I can’t separate the family from the process. All the love I feel for my family life, in the gentlest way, is poured into my work on this movie. You have to imagine a world that can hold these multiple elements.”
Kirschenbaum was certain that Gaghan would take the story to the next level, and the team agreed to let him rewrite the draft.
At the center of the story is a boy named Stubbins, who steps into Dolittle’s world, and Kirschenbaum appreciated that Gaghan planned to take a personal approach to Stubbins’ journey.
“I think the notion of a young boy who feels like he’s out of place in his space really resonated with Steve,” Kirschenbaum says. “That’s the character journey of Stubbins, a young man living in this world of hunting. He lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin, who are hunters. Stubbins doesn’t want to kill creatures; he wants to save them. When he finds Doctor Dolittle, who has lost his wife and is mourning, two kindred spirits go on this journey of healing. Only through communicating and listening are they able to do that. By shaping the screenplay that way, Steve was able to elevate it.”
For Gaghan, the film, and the character of Dolittle, connected in a quietly profound way to our loud, combative, polarized modern world. “If you look at it from a superhero paradigm, Dolittle is a superhero whose super power is listening,” Gaghan says.
“The reason that he can communicate with all these creatures is that he has this core of deep empathy. When the order of the modern day is demonization, Dolittle, at its core, is about the value of being heard. Every creature has something to say. There are points of view in nature that deserve our ear. You reel that back, and it plays out in the human community. Dolittle is about looking for the similarities versus the differences. Whenever any of us do that during our day, it makes us better.”
Talk to the Animals: Robert Downey Meets Dolittle
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.
Roth and Kirschenbaum had reached out to Team Downey—the production company run by Robert and Susan Downey, the actor-producer’s wife and long-time collaborator—and had found fellow creators who appreciated Roth’s knack for reinterpreting classic tales.
From Alice in Wonderland to Snow White and the Huntsman, the prolific producer has taken long-thought-familiar stories and translated them into blockbuster franchises. Roth and Kirschenbaum were certain that Robert Downey take on the brilliantly complex Dolittle would be one for the ages.
For his part, 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 Robert 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.”
Robert and Susan Downey saw it as a great creative challenge and opportunity. “Joe Roth came to us with the version of the script that Stephen Gaghan had written,” Susan Downey says. “They said that Robert was the person he had in mind when he wrote it. 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 that 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.”
Kirschenbaum found his fellow collaborator at the top of her game. “Susan was a top producer before she and Robert worked on Sherlock Holmes,” Kirschenbaum says, “and she has produced all of his movies since. She was an amazing partner to us, and the two of them opened their house and their family to the production; they were so inclusive. We became a surrogate family as we shot; that extended to all the cast. The adventure that Dolittle and Stubbins—and the menagerie of animals—go on was symbolic of our experience on set.”
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 says. “It’s always a miracle to me when things that have so many moving parts come together and equal something entertaining. As people are seeing it, they’re saying they’re moved by it and they’re entertained. My long-suffering missus said it does have that appeal from four to 94. So, it’s a mission accomplished with Team Downey.
“My dad will like the subversive humor,” Downey continues. “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.”
Susan Downey agrees with that assessment. “It reminds me of those classic movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” Susan Downey 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.”
Writer and director Stephen Gaghan (Directed by/Screenplay by) is a filmmaker known for his thrilling, multi-narrative storylines and carefully wrought, emotional drama. In 2001, he earned the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s film Traffic. He was again nominated for Best Original Screenplay in 2006 for Syriana, which he also directed, and which garnered the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for George Clooney. More recently, he directed Gold. He has two Edgar Awards and won the 1997 Emmy for Best Dramatic Writing for an episode of NYPD Blue. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, four children and two dogs. He’s hoping to get a cat soon.
Dan Gregor (Screenplay by) is a film and television writer and director, having written and directed for such shows as How I Met Your Mother and Crazy Ex Girlfriend. His directorial debut feature film Most Likely to Murder premiered at SXSW and was purchased by Lionsgate & Hulu. He’s currently writing the reboot of Disney’s Rescue Rangers, New Line’s Grumpy Old Men starring Eddie Murphy and Samuel L. Jackson and Fox’s Rookie of The Year.
Doug Mand (Screenplay by) is a film and television writer and actor. He’s written for and appeared on How I Met Your Mother, Crazy Ex Girlfriend and The Comedians. He co-wrote and starred in the Lionsgate feature film, Most Likely to Murder, which premiered at SXSW. He’s currently writing the reboot of Disney’s Rescue Rangers, New Line’s Grumpy Old Men starring Eddie Murphy and Samuel L. Jackson and Fox’s Rookie of The Year.
Thomas Shepherd’s (Screen Story by) first feature script, Hey, Stella, which chronicles a young Marlon Brando’s struggle to get the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, was selected to the Hollywood Blacklist. He has since worked steadily in both film and television. In addition to Dolittle, some of Shepherd’s projects include: Cicero, a feature detailing Al Capone’s rise to power in Chicago, for Warner Brothers and Le Grisbi producing; Agatha Christie, a fictionalized action-adventure spec featuring a young Agatha Christie, at Sony with Joe Roth producing; The Irregulars, a television series adapted from the eponymous book by Jennet Conant, for Paramount Television, Anonymous Content and David Frankel attached to direct; Matt Helm, a spy film based on Don Hamilton’s spy series, for Paramount Pictures, Amblin and with Bradley Cooper attached to star. Shepherd currently lives in postage stamp apartment in Los Angeles with his wife, their dogs and any number of injured animals that his wife finds and deems in need of help.
The Animals in Dolittle
Well before casting began, Stephen Gaghan spent months imagining what each animal in Dolittle’s tribe would look like, which in turn informed his voice casting. “You find pictures of animals and cast them,” Gaghan says. “I’d think, ‘That’s the perfect mountain gorilla!’ Then I’d have to articulate to the animators what it is about that animal that makes it perfect. Is it the cock of its shoulders? The light in its eyes, or it being bashful. You identify these human traits that underlie the visual language of the animal. It all comes down to brass tacks.”
It was crucial to Gaghan to elevate the characters in Dolittle’s life. He took each animal in turn and wove narrative and emotional layers into each character.
“Dolittle’s very much a hermit at the beginning of the adventure,” Jeff Kirschenbaum says. “So many of these creatures—from the nearsighted dog Jip to the nervous gorilla Chee-Chee and scared ostrich Plimpton—have something to overcome. Steve wanted to have fun with these layered characters, as well as to imbue them with the unexpected. Only by coming together—where Doctor Dolittle is able to heal them—in return, they’re healing this man who has receded from the world. On this journey with his new apprentice, Dolittle is able to emerge again to save the queen of England…and in doing so, save himself.”
Two-time Academy Award-nominated visual effects supervisor Nicolas Aithadi and two-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor John Dykstra were tasked with the gargantuan project of bringing the animal characters to life within their scenes. While it was key for Stephen Gaghan to emphasize the majestic themes of the Victorian era, the director also wanted to make Dolittle wildly accessible for modern audiences—balancing Hugh Lofting’s imaginative ideas with modern techniques in VFX and SFX.
Working in close coordination with assets from Oscar-nominated SFX supervisor Dominic Tuohy’s (Solo: A Star Wars Story, Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation) division, the VFX team would ensure that audiences believe animals really can talk…if only you figure out how to listen.
- Regal, vain and ferocious when called for, Polynesia “Poly” is Dolittle’s oldest friend, as well as his conscience. Poly credits herself with introducing Dolittle to Lily, who brought the brilliant parrot to the manor to examine an issue with one of her claws. Dolittle listens to Poly most closely, even when—as is often the case—she is saying something he doesn’t want to hear (e.g., “You can’t ignore people…just because they’re people!”). Poly speaks human better than any other parrot, and the gruff matriarch keeps a steady eye on all the family.
- Jip, Long-Haired Lurcher is purebred royalty, whose sense of smell is overdeveloped because of his poor eyesight—so much so that he can almost see without his thick glasses. Almost. Alongside walking stick Styx, Dolittle’s trusty canine is tasked by his professor to keep watch over Queen Victoria while Dolittle seeks out a cure for what most ails her. Brave, protective and wildly loyal to his mates, Jip is just the guard dog for the job.
- Dab-Dab the duck is motherly and ditzy and a little bossy. A kind American Pekin, she’s warm and loving, while not always the most talented nurse. The one duck on Earth with a wooden foot, Dab-Dab is as forgetful as she is intensely faithful to her family.
- Painfully unaware he can’t fly or swim, Plimpton is a large ostrich who takes issue with serving as Dolittle’s trusty steed—especially once he thinks his rider has gained a bit of weight. You’re more likely than not to find the nervous Plimpton with his head shoved in a planter. However, Dolittle has helped the bird with daddy issues discover the calming effects of endorphins, and his new (almost) happy place is rollicking across the globe alongside frenemy Yoshi, the polar bear.
- A young man in ape years, the wildly shy Chee-Chee —whom Dolittle is teaching confidence—loves games, words, riddles and factoids. Freed by the Dolittles during a rescue, Chee-Chee has remained eternally grateful. Despite being nervous and inseparable from his blanket, the hyperventilating mountain gorilla is playful, clever and very strong. Plus, he makes an excellent chess partner for Dolittle, as well as, at a pivotal moment, a tough wrestler against hungry tiger Barry.
- Although he’s a polar bear, Yoshi hates the cold. The gentle giant likes nothing better than finding a bit of sun or spot by the fire to help his poor circulation, and he’s that friend you know you can count on. Craving warmth, Yoshi is the first to sign up for a tropical trip to both Monteverde and the mythical Eden Tree Island. When not arguing with Plimpton, Yoshi is the first to take the plunge and help Dolittle and whale Humphrey on a rollicking underwater mission.
- Kevin is an adorable but gravely wounded squirrel who knows he is “too beautiful to die.” A survivor through and through, Kevin wants to get out into the world and experience everything it has to offer. When Stubbins accidentally shoots Kevin—and Dolittle and his medical crew save him—the cheeky (and slightly homicidal) squirrel begrudgingly joins Dolittle and Stubbins as their guide…even if his agenda may involve exacting sweet revenge on the accident-prone boy who caused him grave injury.
- One of the most selfless of all Dolittle’s crew, Betsy—whom Gaghan named after his daughter—often volunteers for tasks and responsibilities. She may seem like a kind, chatty giraffe, but she’s also wildly brave and swoops in to save the day when Stubbins needs a ride to Dolittle’s vessel, the Water Lily. She’s also an outlaw escape artist—she and fox Tutu are wanted in three forests—and Dolittle’s private compound has provided the perfect refuge and hideout for them. Still, Betsy has no issue jumping into the fray to take matters into her own hooves.
- The Leader of the Fox Resistance, Tutu is the embodiment of courage. With ancestors that are the uncatchable desert foxes, Tutu is extraordinarily proud and always pragmatic. When she, Betsy and Poly put their heads together, there is nothing they can’t accomplish—especially successfully getting Stubbins onto Dolittle’s ship before it sets sail for Monteverde and Eden Tree Island. Betsy’s nimble navigator from atop her giraffe steed, Tutu’s motto is “Vive la résistance!”
- Whatever this baby sugar glider lacks in the way of knowledge, she makes up for in precociousness. Mini wants to see the world, and Dolittle’s adventure to Eden Tree Island proves the perfect opportunity. The adorable stowaway marsupial uses her flying-squirrel imitation as a ticket for the ride of a lifetime…and proves her bravery and skillset at just the right moment. “Mini is a superhero,” says visual effects supervisor John Dykstra. “She is super fluffy, super sweet and super fearless.”
- Like all whales, Humphrey is shockingly intelligent and never chose to be guardian of the ocean. With the advent of fossil fuels, he and his kind had no option but to rise to the challenge. On this adventure, the Welshman Humphrey will serve as the most powerful whale-drawn carriage on the high seas, rocketing the Water Lily and Dolittle’s crew away from certain danger…and deceiving Dr. Blair Müdfly when the time is right. “I know Humphrey always feels honored to assist his fellow Welshman, Doctor Dolittle, any time he travels by sea,” says Tim Treloar, who doubled on the production as Downey’s Welsh dialect coach. “Especially as the Doctor would never bring a plastic bag anywhere near the ocean.”
- Once Dolittle and crew arrive at Monteverde, they rely on the help of nervous dragonfly James to broker a critical negotiation with some mafia-esque carpenter ants. Still preoccupied after suffering an unexpected heartbreak, James proves a nimble guide at getting Stubbins into the dungeon. Whether or not he’ll help the apprentice out, however, depends on his ability to stay focused on the task at hand.
- An 800-lb Bengal tiger with complex mommy issues, the brilliant, migraine-suffering Barry was a patient during Dolittle’s first stay at Monteverde. Killer of approximately 872, he is the wryest, drollest and most ironic of all apex predators. Barry’s grudge against Dolittle is rooted in perceived resentment that Dolittle abandoned their therapy just as Barry was making progress.
- Leader of the carpenter-ant colony on Monteverde Island, Don Carpenterino—alongside his chief Army Ant—negotiates with dragonfly James the price of help for Dolittle to gain access to the journal secreted in Rassouli’s quarters. Ants are known worldwide for their lock-picking skills, and it is Don’s daughter, Sheila, that broke James’ heart.
- Guardian of the Eden Tree. Spitter of fire. Possessor of a broken heart—Dragon is wise and world-weary. This happens when you live 20,000 or 40,000 years. Even she has lost count. If Dolittle’s unique veterinary skillset can offer relief to painful emotional issues that have prompted her gastronomic ailments, he may just survive her volcanic wrath.
- The phasmid Styx survived in the wild by posing as, well, a stick. The leaf insect first came to Dolittle’s Manor to air a grievance—something one of the prides of Family Phyllidae thought quite unfair. Tasked as a secret weapon at the palace, the 12-eyed Styx, who has enchanted Lady Rose, will prove critical in protecting Queen Victoria.
- An inseparable pair of capuchin monkeys, Elliot & Elsie were responsible for reading Dolittle’s contract for the very sanctuary all the animals call home. Unfortunately, monkeys are not the best estate attorneys. Luckily, they are brilliant at sending out the call for help to whale Humphrey when he’s needed the very most.