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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Dolittle is a kid-friendly adventure comedy starring Robert Downey, Jr. as a doctor who can communicate with animals. It diverges from author Hugh Lofting's original book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (as well as previous movie adaptations from 1967 and 1998) into its own story. Here, Doolittle is a hermit following the death of his wife, who was a brave explorer. While the overall story is told in the spirit of fun and adventure, the movie deals with themes of loss and abandonment, overcoming grief through helping others, and finding a family among friends. While communication, compassion, and teamwork are all on display, there's also more violence and peril than you might expect in a family film -- including knives, cannons, guns, poison, and animal attacks -- but much of it feels cartoonish. A hunting accident plays out with an anti-gun sentiment: A warm-hearted human character accidentally shoots a (hilariously dramatic) squirrel and then sets out to save its life. While there's some gently rude humor, like animal bottoms and farts, parents may be most shocked by a scene in which the doctor appears to unblock a creature's intestinal tract through its anus (gratefully, not on camera). One use of "damn."
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What's the story?
DOLITTLE stars Robert Downey, Jr. as a famous, reclusive doctor who embarks on a magical odyssey -- with the help of a crew of talking animals -- to find a cure to save an ill Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) in 19th-century England. Based on Hugh Lofting's Newbery Prize-winning 1922 novel The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, this take on the classic children's story boasts a star-studded cast, including Tom Holland, Selena Gomez, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Octavia Spencer, and more.
Is it any good?
Dolittle is a bit like doctor-ordered medicine: Some moments may have you holding your nose, but it does the trick. Despite pulling out all the stops with an A-list, award-winning crew (including Syriana director/writer Stephen Gaghan, Pan's Labyrinth cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, composer Danny Elfman, and more), the first family film from Team Downey -- the production company Downey Jr. runs with his wife, producer Susan Downey -- is just OK. It's not hysterical, but it's funny enough: Laughs come from a squid who refuses to talk by saying "snitches get stitches" and a sight gag in which a dog scoots his rear across the room. The messages are positive but unlikely to be transformative -- although gorilla Chee Chee's constant self-encouragements are pretty great ("I'm not a prisoner of fear! It's OK to be scared!"). The overall demonstrations of friendship, compassion, communication, and teamwork are always welcome in a children's film. And there's also the more subtle but present message that if you love and protect animals, they will love and protect you, too.
All of that said, the film has two modes: chaos and quiet. The menagerie of animals and the resulting slapstick pandemonium is just too much at once -- so many characters, so many animals, so much yelling, so much craziness. And on the other side of things is Dolittle himself. Specifically, his voice. Dolittle speaks with a strong Welsh accent that doesn't feel like it belongs to Downey Jr.: The texture, resonance, and intonation don't match the voice of the Iron Man actor we know so well. Compounding that disconnect is his too-rich audio quality -- it almost sounds like it was recorded in a voice-over booth and dubbed in. Perhaps that voice is just Downey's own creative spin on a Victorian English character, and perhaps a decision was made to have him voice his part in a sound booth to match that of the actors providing the animals' voices. And Downey's mannerisms and facial expressions are certainly consistent with the trademark style that audiences love. But the sum of these things creates an uncanny valley that may be too distracting for some adults, even if kids don't notice or care. Dolittle is unlikely to resonate for as long as Lofting's novels have, but it does provide a couple of hours of decent family entertainment, and sometimes that's enough.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Dolittle and his crew of friends and animals demonstrate teamwork. How were they able to overcome the villains who wanted to stop or hurt them?
How did Dr. Dolittle and Stubbins talk to the animals? How can we communicate with animals, and what's the value in that?
How many different ways do we see the characters dealing with loss? What does the movie say about coping with grief?
What were all the examples of compassion shown? Did your opinion of King Rassouli change after you learned more about him? How did his opinion of Dolittle change after he learned more about why things played out the way they did?
Talk about your views on hunting and how it's portrayed in the film. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- In theaters: January 17, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: March 24, 2020
- Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Rami Malek, Tom Holland
- Director: Stephen Gaghan
- Studio: Universal Pictures
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Book Characters, Cats, Dogs, and Mice, Ocean Creatures, Wild Animals
- Character strengths: Communication, Compassion, Teamwork
- Run time: 106 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: some action, rude humor and brief language
- Last updated: December 19, 2020
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