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Over the past decade or so, Disney has had great success translating classic fantasy stories into live-action films. Now, Universal’s latest attempt at a live-action fantasy blockbuster is Dolittle starring Robert Downey Jr. as Dr. Dolittle. Although the trailers for the film seem harmless enough, viewers might be surprised to learn that the character of Dr. Dolittle has surprisingly racist origins.

Robert Downey Jr. with Mickey Mouse
Robert Downey Jr. with Mickey Mouse | Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Why the Dolittle books are so controversial

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Dolittle series began a century ago when British author Hugo Lofting published The Story of Dr. Dolittle in 1920. The book was a success and led to several sequels published over the next 28 years. The popular 1922 sequel, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, won a prestigious Newbery Medal. Cinema Blend reports Voyages served as the basis for the Robert Downey Jr. version of Dolittle.

Beloved at the time, the books have become infamous in years since. In keeping with 1920s British attitudes, the content of these books is very racist toward black people. The portrayal of Prince Bumpo, a black prince, is particularly upsetting.

According to Washingtonian, The Story of Dr. Dolittle includes a scene in which the prince expresses his desire to become white. The New York Times says Bumpo wanted to become white so that Sleeping Beauty, the beloved fairy tale princess, would be willing to marry him. Dr. Dolittle reluctantly agrees to help Bumpo change his skin color by bleaching his skin white.

How the Dolittle franchise has dealt with its past

Eddie Murphy as Dr. Dolittle
Eddie Murphy as the doctor | 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Such a story is utterly abhorrent to modern sensibilities. Even the publishers of the Dolittle books are aware how they’ve aged horribly in regard to racial issues. The New York Times reports a 1980s reissue of the books removed racial epithets, offensive illustrations of black characters, and the aforementioned skin bleaching scene. If you’re familiar with the Dolittle books, there’s a good chance you were exposed to these sanitized editions rather than the originals.

Has the uncomfortable history of Dr. Dolittle dulled the character’s popularity? No. AllMovie reports that, in a dramatic and subversive twist of fate, a black actor, Eddie Murphy, took on the role of the doctor in the 1998 film. Unlike earlier Dolittle stories, this movie was set in contemporary times, letting go of the racist baggage of the original series’ Victorian setting.

What will Robert Downey Jr.’s version do with the story?

Now, we will soon see the latest iteration of the franchise, the Robert Downey Jr. film Dolittle. Unlike its predecessor starring Eddie Murphy, this film will be set in the Victorian era, reports Entertainment Weekly. This could lead to controversy in the unlikely event it stays true to the original Dolittle books.

A culture’s moral compass can change drastically over the course of one short century. A children’s book which was once widely accepted can become very inflammatory. Hopefully, Universal will handle this new movie in a sensitive way.

[Correction: An earlier version said Disney, not Universal, made 2020’s Dolittle.]

Also see: Is ‘The Shining’ Really About Native American History?