The original Doctor Dolittle books turned colonial narratives into gentle stories for children. Like other heroes of the late 1800s and early 1900s—Tarzan, Professor Challenger, Allan Quatermain, John Carter—John Dolittle went to Africa, to the South Seas, and (thanks to a giant moth) to the moon. But unlike those contemporaries, Dolittle didn’t kill or conquer. Instead, he stitched up wounds on beasts and humans alike, and made copious notes about languages and customs. He was the charitable anthropologist of early adventure literature. For children, he modeled a different kind of colonial relationship—for better and worse.
Doctor Dolittle has been adapted to film several times since the 1960s, but Dolittle, the newly released version directed by Stephen Gaghan, is unusual in embracing the adventure roots. British Veterinarian John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) has through study learned to speak the languages of every creature from elephants to stick insects. He’s also a miracle-working doctor, and so he’s called out of retirement to try to cure the ailing Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). Setting off to retrieve a miraculous fruit from the far ends of the earth, he’s aided by CGI animals including the mothering parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), the cowardly gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek), and a human apprentice named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett).
Young action heroes are often chosen for greatness because of their propensity for violence. But Stubbins, we learn, is a worthy apprentice because he hates to kill animals and refuses to treat them as property. Similarly, when Dolittle and crew sail off into the hinterlands, they don’t inflict Indiana Jones-like carnage on the people or animals who live there. There’s still conflict with rulers of distant nations and with various big bad monsters. These are generally resolved, however, not by martial arts or firearm, but by negotiation, kindness, and treating psychiatric conditions and stomach aches alike. Dolittle wins the world through soft power.
You can read Dolittle, then, as a goofy but sincere rebuke to the uber-violence of our current action and superhero films. The narrative may jerk about incessantly, and there are too many characters to develop any of them with much finesse. But the message for kids is clear enough—making friends and helping folks is better than murdering or controlling them. The best superpower isn’t energy blasts or superstrength to destroy your enemies. It’s the ability to talk to everyone, so you can turn them from enemies into friends.
The problem is that a nonviolent colonial adventure narrative doesn’t just promote nonviolence, it also misrepresents colonialism. The movie endeavors to be a gentle, harmless romp. But the story it tells is about British people going to other countries and stealing stuff on behalf of the Queen.
Similarly, Dolittle insists that he doesn’t own his animal friends. But in the film they function mostly as servants and retainers—less like animals than like subjugated, marginalized people from Britain’s far-flung empire. The animals dress Dolittle, feed him, trim his beard, and allow themselves to be talked into letting him ride on their backs. The only character who expresses resentment at this situation, or who wonders why he’s wandering around with humans in the first place, is a squirrel voiced by Craig Robinson. His reasonable critiques are, without exception, treated as punch lines, and he’s presented as borderline insane.
The film does realize the animals have to have some motivation to involve themselves in human affairs and to risk their lives for the queen, so it provides one. Because of his service to royalty in the past, Dolittle was granted land for a nature preserve, where all the animals live. This bequest lasts only as long as the current queen lives, though. This is an incredibly shortsighted and callous way to set up such a trust, but no one voices an objection. The queen’s nobility is indisputable in the film; her charity (enabled by massive wealth taken from where?) means she has a claim on the animals forever. By such means does equality become indistinguishable from vassalage.
Of course, it’s just a children’s film. But silly plots often are silly because they’re taking the cultural path of least resistance, and kids who are taught that white people at the seat of empire are more important than everyone else not infrequently grow up to be adults who think the same thing. As in real life, so in children’s films—those who call for nonviolence need to be careful lest they end up apologizing for injustice. It’s great to want to communicate with the whole world. But it’s worth remembering that in reality, the rulers of the whole world often learn other people’s languages the better to tell them what to do. v