Box Office Failures Week: Doolittle (2020)

$165 million worldwide against a production budget of $175 million. Yep, that’s a box office failure.

Yet the 1967 film that preceeded this one is also one of the biggest failures in movie history. It tripled its original budget, ballooning to $17 million ($132 million in today’s money). And the movie only made back $9 million. Despite the negative reaction to that movie, 20th Century Fix lobbied for the film at the Academy Awards,  where it was nominated for Best Picture and won for Best Original Song and Best Visual Effects. They went so far as to offer sixteen consecutive nights of free screenings of the film at the studio lot, along with dinner and champagne, to Academy members.

That movie was a complete mess to make, as star Rex Harrison disliked co-star Anthony Newley. According to Mark Harris’ Pictures at A Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of a New Hollywood, Harrison decided to vent his jealousy of Newley by using anti-Semetic slurs in the actor’s direction. At one point — due to this and his insistence on singing live versus lip synching — Harrison was fired and replaced by Christopher Plummer. Then, Harrison came back and Plummer still needed to be paid. To top that off, Geoffrey Holder, who played William Shakespeare the Tenth, the leader of Sea Star Island, was subjected to racial namecalling by members of Harrison’s entourage.

Does it get worse? The animals often bit and crapped all over cast members. And some of the ducks literally forgot how to swim and almost drowned. Then, as they were shooting the giant pink sea snail at Marigot Bay, Saint Lucia, the natives — angered by a stomach bug caused by snails that had sickened the island’s children earlier that year — began to stone the giant snail. Around that time, producer Arthur P. Jacobs has a heart attack.

Finally, when they got back to California, Harrison insisted on re-recording all of his songs live on set. This would later cause even more headaches, as the orchestra would have to record the songs again later to match his speed.

So when you look at all of those issues — Eddie Murphy’s Doolittle remake earned around $300 million on a $70 million dollar budget and spawned two canon sequels and two spin-offs, so it doesn’t count in this discussion — you may realize that this movie isn’t anywhere near the bomb that the original film was.

This movie has all the hallmarks of a bomb. And if you’ve learned anything during this week of box office failures, you know that movies show the signs of bombdom long before they play the silver screen.

Here’s a good one: three weeks of reshoots, along with Syriana director Stephen Gaghan needing a second director’s help (Jonathan Liebesman, whose record of Battle: Los AngelesWrath of the Titans, 2014’s Worst Director Razzie-winning Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles suggests that maybe, just maybe, a better third director may have been needed) and writer Chris McKay (the LEGO movies) writing new comedic scenes, as most of the humor was falling flat. There was also the hope that Seth Rogen and Brendan O’Brien would pitch in, but they couldn’t commit to the film. Oh yeah — The Lego Batman Movie writer John Whittington tried to write some new scenes, but his work was shredded by star Robert Downey Jr.

As for Downey Jr., he based his lead role on Welsh neo-pagan physician William Price. One of the reasons? He didn’t want to do another British accent. Yes, the pioneer of cremation in the UK was the inspiration for the lead character in a children’s movie. Cool story.

The biggest sign that this was a lit fuse waiting to die in theaters? It kept getting moved. First, it was moved so that it wouldn’t compete with the latest Star Wars film (which also got moved and is a failure story in and out of itself), then it was placed in theaters in January, traditionally the graveyard for movies that studios want to wipe off their shoes.

So how is it?

Well, I didn’t hate it. That’s a victory.

A lot of the credit for that goes to the great voice talent. This may be the only movie credit that Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes share with John Cena and Jason Mantzoukas, but such is life.

But I never understand movies where we’re supposed to fall in love with a hero who wants nothing to do with being a hero. It’s like the lead has already made some progress through the hero’s journey, yet we’ve missed all the good moments and start off in the dreaded third act. I remember as a child, watching Popeye in a theater, and wondering why Robin Williams’ version of the role hated spinach and didn’t want anything to do with saving the day. I kind of felt the same way here, but it comes together.

It’s odd to see Ralph Ineson in a kid-friendly movie after I associate his voice with The VVitch so much, but again, life’s weird. And it’s always nice to see Antonio Banderas in a movie, even if it’s a minor role. That said — Nicholas Cage was supposed to play that part and I would have lost my mind of he showed up in this movie.

This isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to change your life. But shouldn’t some movies just be trifles? Silly bits of fun? Maybe they don’t need to cost this much and demand this much work, but that’s what box office failure week is all about.

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