Another week, another story about how a box office disaster ended up the way it did. But Dolittle, which is on track to be Universal’s first massive box office bomb of the year, is unique in that these stories are coming right now and not right after release.
By now you’ve probably heard some of the tales of infamy surrounding the $175 million family blockbuster starring Robert Downey Jr. — the nonsensical storyline, the badly CGI’d talking animals, the dragon fart scene. But what you may not know is that most of those problems that Dolittle is currently getting slammed for (with a whopping 19% on Rotten Tomatoes) got added by Universal in a series of costly reshoots and tonal tinkering in an attempt to appeal to a global audience. (Cue dragon fart noise.)
Dolittle is bad. And Universal may have had an inkling that it would be, considering the studio dumped it in the traditional “January graveyard,” the month when movie releases go to die. But then you remember that the studio spent $175 million on this movie, much of it spent during expensive reshoots “to craft a sillier movie more likely to appeal to younger moviegoers and overseas audiences,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
But why did Universal turn what would have likely been a middling disappointment of a film that was already nearly finished into an unmitigated disaster? According to the Wall Street Journal, it was to try to boost Dolittle‘s global appeal to possibly offset whatever domestic box office disappointments they would suffer. Because overseas audiences just love emotional climaxes where Robert Downey Jr. sticks a leek up a dragon’s asshole to dislodge the pieces of armor and skeletons clogging its rectum, and gets rewarded with a massive fart in his face. WSJ writes:
“After test-screening Mr. Gaghan’s initial version of the movie, Universal worried it wasn’t lighthearted enough to connect with children and families around the globe, according to people familiar with the production. The studio decided the movie needed more computer-generated animals and more laughs, the people said, and called in filmmakers and screenwriters with more experience in the genre. They said these included directors Chris McKay of The Lego Batman Movie and Jonathan Liebesman of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
McKay and Liebesman would add a sillier tone to the movie while script rewrites by Dan Gregor and Doug Mand would insert more jokes like the aforementioned dragon fart scene. It resulted in a confusingly jumbled film that was a chore to watch and earned the worst reviews of the year so far for a major feature film.
But this is a very real strategy that has paid off for Universal before. A strong overseas box office performance for 2017’s The Mummy offset its disappointing domestic haul while other studios have seen the same for some of its biggest critical and domestic misses. And aside from the costly CGI, Universal has to pay a share of its box office revenues to Downey Jr. in addition to his $20 million salary — a sweetheart deal that has fallen out of favor in Hollywood as movies become less sure box office hits. But if there’s anyone to blame for this malfeasance of a film, it’s Disney, WSJ says, as competing studios who hope to compete with the box office-dominating House of Mouse can only turn to overseas audiences.
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