Movies

Robert Downey Jr wants kids to have fun with Dolittle

Robert Downey Jr electrifies one of literature’s most enduring characters in a vivid reimagining of the classic tale of the man who could talk to animals: Dolittle.

The eccentric John Dolittle (Downey), famed doctor and veterinarian of Queen Victoria’s England, hermits himself away with only his menagerie of exotic animals for company.

But when the young queen (Jessie Buckley) falls gravely ill, he is forced to set sail with his young apprentice (Harry Collett) on an epic adventure to a mythical island in search of a cure.

The fantasy adventure Dolittle opens here on Jan 16 and features a star-studded voice cast for the animals, including Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Selena Gomez, John Cena, Tom Holland and Ralph Fiennes.

Here, the 54-year-old US actor and father of three talks about his latest non-Marvel Cinematic Universe film since 2014’s The Judge.

On how he got involved

I wanted to do something that wasn’t entirely out of my wheelhouse, but was fun for kids. And you know, I’ve got kids now. I’ve got a 26-year-old, so he’s been able to come see most of the movies I’ve been making for, I don’t know, 13 years. But the young ones (aged eight and six) are always home at premiere night, so I thought that would be fun.

And honestly, there was something about the gentle, sweet adventure and the idea of communication and empathy and all that stuff. I hadn’t really been out of the mire of, you know, intergalactic threats for a while, so I liked the idea of returning to the kind of movie that I grew up watching when I was a kid.

On the character of Dr Dolittle

In the beginning of the movie when we find Dolittle, he is in recluse mode. So I wanted to think about the character that I’m creating... someone who has become a hermit and isolated himself probably due to some trauma or emotional disappointment or whatever. And his reasoning is that he has taken it upon himself to help the animals only, but really, it’s that thing where he has given up on humanity and secreted himself to this estate that was gifted to him by the Queen.

On working with Harry Collett

He is a real rising talent and a star. I remember seeing his screen testing (and going), “Oh my God, I wonder if that’s what Tom Cruise was like when he was 11”. But he’s very much his own guy and he’s just a really capable kid.

On the production design

We would go into these sets with (the production designer). We would just kind of walk around the spaces and talk about it for hours and really think about it in terms of the blocking, but also, it’s not often that you’re doing a living room set and we’re saying, “Right now, wouldn’t we have to make room for a polar bear to get in here? And where can the giraffe put her head in the window and what’s a comfortable place for a silverback gorilla to sleep?” So a lot of what we did was literally just trying to set up all these environments to house this motley crew of creatures.

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