'Dolittle' Box Office: A Bruising Miss for Robert Downey Jr. and Universal

The big-budget pic will have a tough time recovering from a dismal debut over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

At one point in Dolittle, Robert Downey Jr.'s titular character tells his four-legged friends: "We have no choice but to embark on this perilous journey."

If only Downey and Universal could take back those words in the wake of the family pic's dismal launch at the North American box office, where it earned an estimated $29.5 million for the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday frame. That includes $21.9 million for the weekend proper — less than Eddie Murphy's Dr. Dolittle and Dr. Dolittle 2 opened to in 1998 and 2001, respectively, even without adjusting for inflation.

Dolittle — a passion project for Downey in the post-Iron Man era — is the first big-budget miss of 2020 and stands to bleed tens of millions for Universal. Worse, in a time where the major Hollywood studios are scrambling to keep up with the Disney empire, it dashes hopes of launching a new chapter in the tale of a man who can converse with animals.

It's unclear exactly how much Dolittle will lose for Universal, which is still licking its wounds after Cats, another VFX-laden film with talking animals. Dolittle has yet to open in many major foreign territories, and in North America faces little competition in the family marketplace until Sonic the Hedgehog opens in a month. But recovery will be tough, based on audience reaction and scathing reviews.

"It seems like they couldn't decide whether it was an adventure film or a comedy. It was a waste of Downey's talents," says Wall Street anlayst Eric Handler of MKM partners.

Dolittle nabbed a ho-hum B CinemaScore from moviegoers and limped to a "definite" recommend score of just 42 percent among general audiences, according to those with access to PostTrak, a real-time exit polling service.

That compares to a 72 percent definite recommend score for the Will Smith and Martin Lawrence buddy comedy Bad Boys for Life, which easily won the four-day holiday frame with a rousing $73.4 million, well ahead of expectations and the second-best MLK weekend gross of all time behind American Sniper ($107 million).

In terms of parents, only 51 percent said they would recommend seeing Dolittle, according to PostTrak. Kids were only slightly better with a 52 percent "must see right away" rating.

Overseas, Dolittle has grossed $30.3 million from its first 42 markets, the majority of them smaller. While it is showing promise in Asia, it turned in tepid numbers in Australia.

Team Downey — the company run by Downey and his wife, Susan — and veteran Hollywood producer Joe Roth put together the Dolittle package and shopped it to various Hollywood studios. Universal bit, despite the fact that director Stephen Gaghan had no experience with big-budget, VFX-laden movies.

At least one other major studio passed on the project because of the $175 million budget, according to sources.

After poor test screenings, Universal ordered a reworking of parts of the story and reshoots, including injecting more comedic moments. The studio subsequently pushed the movie from a high-profile 2019 summer release to the far quieter January corridor.

Doctor Dolittle, the 1967 big-screen adaptation of Hugh Loftings' book that starred Rex Harrison, was notorious for going over budget and almost bankrupting 20th Century Fox.

The two Dr. Dolittle movies starring Murphy, however, were huge box-office wins. Those two pics were set in modern times, in contrast to both Doctor Dolittle and Dolittle, which are set in the Victorian era.

Says box office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations, "There’s good nostalgia, there’s bad nostalgia and there’s no nostalgia."