By Sapna Khajuria
It is pretty much a given that anything featuring Robert “Iron Man” Downey Junior (RDJ) would rank very high on my teenagers’ must-watch list. But would his brooding presence and dry wit get an opportunity to shine in the midst of digitally animated animals? Will children enjoy watching RDJ as something other than their beloved Iron Man? I’ll say what I end up repeating to my teenagers, “don’t diss it till you have tried it”.
Emma Thompson as Poly the macaw, is the narrator of the film’s story. We are introduced to eccentric Doctor John Dolittle via a quick life history — he can speak to animals, used to treat them, lost the great love of his life — a fellow adventurer named Lily — and has been living the life of a recluse with some of his animal buddies ever since.
A very unkempt RDJ gesticulating like a gorilla, chirping like a mouse and so on, drew cheers from the younger audience. He can speak to, and understand animals. Sadly the same cannot be said for ability to speak clearly in the film — his sometimes Welsh, sometimes vaguely Scottish accent, coupled with a bizarre low and incoherent dialogue delivery made it tough to follow the dialogues.
Queen Victoria happens to be gravely ill, courtesy some conspiring courtiers, and calls for Dr Dolittle. The first half takes what feels like a decade to get to the point, by which time my teenagers were beginning to get extremely restless and younger children in the audience were up in arms.
After much dragging of the plotline, Dr Dolittle is joined by his trusted animals and Stubbins, his self-appointed assistant, on a voyage to the mysterious Sumatran forests in search for the flower of the Eden plant, a last resort cure for the Queen. Stubbins, by the way, is a young boy who loved animals in a time where others thought of them as food or prey. One of my teenagers is a lot like Stubbins — he is happiest in the company of animals or examining plant life, so he found Stubbins’ character quite relatable.
The voiceovers have been given by quite the stellar cast — Rami Malek as Chee Chee the scared gorilla, John Cena as Yoshi the peppy polar bear, Kumail Nanjiani as Plimpton the ostrich who does not get along with Yoshi, Tom Holland (aka Spiderman) as Jip the smart talking dog, Michael Sheen as villainous Dr Blair Mudfly, and Antonio Banderas as Rassouli the flamboyant pirate. There was much excitement among the children about the presence of Tom Holland, but this impressive cast isn’t enough to make this film more impressive.
Predictably, the adventurers encounter all sorts of perils — Dr Blair Mudfly’s ship chasing them to ensure their mission fails, storms, man eating tigers, an island of bandits – you get the drift. What made this bit interesting for my boys, were the scenes with the animals going through their own journeys of growth — Yoshi and Plimpton go from bickering to bromance, Chee Chee discovers his hidden courage.
Things go wrong, the adventurers face tigers and a fire-breathing dragon, and come face to face with their own fears. After all the swashbuckling and adventures on sea and in mysterious lands, our motley crew comes back to London. Do they make it in time to save the Queen? My teenagers recommend you watch the film to find out.
In a nutshell:
The teenagers’ verdict:
Yay or nay: It’s definitely worth a watch. Steel yourself for RDJ’s weird accent and be sure to buy snacks in the first half to help you wade through a serious case of boredom, thanks to the drag-a-thon. They enjoyed the scenes with the dragon and found Chee Chee’s road to bravery quite endearing. Also advisable — stay for the post credits.
What does not work: RDJ’s accent is among the worst accents ever heard in a film. If you find a screening with subtitles, please pick that. The first half is about 20 minutes too long and the story feels like a series of scenes put together randomly with no real sense of where the story is going. It felt as if someone started on the film with great enthusiasm but lost interest early on.
Humour quotient and Swear-o-metre:
There are some subtle jokes like the duck referring to things that “roll off her back”, which may not be understood by younger children. Fear not, the second half is filled with enough jokes including those of the toilet variety that is right up the little ones’ alley (and truth be told, right up my teenagers’ alley as well). From the ostrich telling the polar bear that he should have been an eskimo’s rug, to “Dolittle did a little doodoo”, a tiger being hit in the groin by gorilla, and the extraction of all sorts of nonsensical items from a dragon’s colon — humour of all ranges is covered here.
There’s no swearing or rough language except for a minor reference to a character “flipping off” another character, which the younger kids anyway are unlikely to understand.
Positives to take away from the film / talk to your kids about:
Chee Chee the gorilla overcomes his fears and rises to the occasion when his friend is in peril. It’s nice to tell your child that it’s perfectly alright to be afraid of things; it’s how we get past it that matters. Embracing differences and accepting one’s friends for who they are – for me, this is possibly the most important mantra to teach one’s child in light of how fragmented today’s world seems to be.
Go for it?
My children gave this a thumbs up. I’d say go with low expectations, a strong dose of patience, and enjoy the wisecracking animals and the madcap adventure.
(The writer is a lawyer by training, who would rather be a full-time globetrotter, and mom to 12-year-old twin boys who share her love for all things filmy.)
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