“Dolittle” boasts a pretty star-studded cast list, including the first role we’ve seen Robert Downey Jr. in since the Avenger’s decade wrapped up last May. He brings an interesting and quirky take to the character of Dolittle and is joined for an adventure by a gang of his furry friends and a young boy who is struggling to figure out his place in the world. The movie has some promising themes about friendship, fitting in, and facing your fears and would be enjoyable for older elementary aged kids (7-10) who enjoy adventure and talking animals. While there is some violence and moments of mild peril, the film has a swashbuckling feel along the lines of “The Princess Bride” or “Indiana Jones”, rather than a typical action/shoot-em-up movie.
** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **
How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?
The basic premise of Dolittle’s sanctuary is that it’s a home for all creatures large or small and no one is turned away. While it is more of an animal shelter, due to Dolittle’s ability to converse with them, these animals take on many anthropomorphic qualities and are more similar to people in many ways. These animals that Dolittle has taken in are his ‘family of choice’. This theme of found family and not turning anyone away may resonate with children from foster and adoptive backgrounds since often the thing they want most is a ‘sanctuary’- a safe home with people to care for them and help them to heal.
As a character, Dolittle may also be relatable to children in care. At the start of the movie we find out he has lost his beloved wife and essentially become a hermit shutting himself off from the world, aside form his few trusted animal friends. He is reluctant to trust others and fears being hurt again. Children who are in care have often been hurt by the people who were supposed to love them the most. Because of that, they may be resistive to becoming part of a family again because they worry that this new family will hurt them just like they were hurt before. Watching Dolittle learn to trust and let others into his circle again may mirror feelings and experiences they have had.
- Trusting Others
After the death of his wife, Dolittle becomes a recluse and stays in his house hiding from the world with his animal friends. When a young boy comes knocking at his door, Dolittle hides from him saying, “if you let people in, they’ll hurt you.” Over the course of the movie Dolittle slowly learns to trust other people again and eventually welcomes Stubbins into his ‘family’. Children with backgrounds of foster care and adoption have often been hurt by those who were supposed to love them the most. This can cause them to become fearful and distrusting of everyone as a result. When they first come into a foster or adoptive home, they most likely are reluctant to let themselves become a part of a family again, for fear that they will be hurt like they were before. Talking about Dolittle’s feelings at the start of the movie and his journey to opening up and letting others in again after he’s been hurt can be a good way to help youth come to terms with their own journeys on this path towards trust.
- Embracing and Overcoming Fears
Another frequent theme that comes up during the movie is the idea of facing your fears. This is especially seen in the character of Chee-Chee, a gorilla who seems to have a lot of anxiety. Dolittle tells him a number of times, ‘it’s okay to be scared!’ and “you’re not a prisoner of fear”. There are a few times in the movie where Chee-Chee’s fear gets the better of him and he freezes up. However, in the end he is able to embrace his fear and work through it, and as a result saves Dolittle from a dangerous situation. This can be a great opportunity to talk to kids about their own fears and how it’s okay and understandable for them to have things that they’re afraid of. But also talking about how use that fear in a healthy way, rather than letting it keep them from experiencing or accomplishing things.
- Dealing with Loss/Emotional Pain
A central theme during the movie is that of losing a loved one. Dolittle lost his wife and is still grieving her, and towards the end of the film we are introduced to a dragon character who we find out has lost her mate. She tells Dolittle, “you know nothing of my pain” when he first approaches her. Kids in care can often feel like this, like you couldn’t possibly understand how they feel because you haven’t been through the same things they have. The dragon also says her feelings are worse than any physical pain and that “it cuts much deeper in every moment you feel it again”. Our kids who have been through foster care or adoption likely have things in their past that feel like this. This can be an opportunity to talk about those feelings. Even if they aren’t ready to talk about why they are hurting, just opening up to admit that they are hurting can be an important first step.
- Death of a Main Character/Mother Figure:
The movie opens with the audience learning that Dolittle’s wife has died in a shipwreck, and he has become a recluse, shutting himself up in his home with his family of animals. Dolittle and his wife did not have human children, but they treat their animal friends as their family and in a way, these are their children. Hearing about her death and watching Dolittle and the animals react to the death of their mother figure and deal with the aftermath of that may be difficult for children who have experienced similar situations.
- Mild Peril/Violence
There are a number of action sequences throughout the movie that involve some violence (primarily swords and fighting). However, the movie had a very over-the-top, swashbuckling sort of tone (think “The Princess Bride” or “Pirates of the Caribbean”) so the violence doesn’t feel particularly realistic and is almost cartoonish. There are also a few scenes where it appears as if something bad is going to happen to the main characters, which may be anxiety-producing.
- Character is Forcibly Restrained
There is a scene towards the beginning of the movie where Dolittle is going to meet the queen. He’s let himself go quite a bit physically, and his animal friends want to give him a makeover, but he does not want to. They use anesthesia to essentially knock him out so they can give him a bath and a haircut. Personal grooming can often be a point of contention with children with a background of adoption or foster care. For those who have suffered physical abuse, they may be fearful of activities such as haircuts or bathing. Or it can also be a defense mechanism for youth who have suffered sexual abuse. In either case, watching a character being held down or knocked out while these things are done to them could enhance those fears or aversions.
- Child is Left Behind
Stubbins desperately wants to go on the adventure with Dolittle and the animals but Dolittle does not want him to. Dolittle goes as far as to set sail while Stubbins is still sleeping in an attempt to leave him behind. He is awoken by another character, runs after the boat and is able to catch up and come along. And while Stubbins isn’t Dolittle’s child, the scene may still be upsetting to children who have been abandoned or left behind by their family.
There is a scene near the end of the movie where Dolittle’s ship is hit by a cannon ball and sinks while many of the animals are still on board. There is a scene where the animals are in the water panicking because some of them don’t know how to swim. It is short-lived and all of the animals are able to help one another and get to shore safely. However, for children who have fears of the water or who have experienced a natural disaster involving flooding or water it may be upsetting.
- Magical Healing
The movie centers around a quest to find a magical fruit that cures any illness. While this is a common trope in fantasy literature, it can be harmful to some children to lead them to believe that something like this exists. Children may struggle if they know of someone who is ‘sick’ and wonder why that person can’t just take the right medicine and be magically cured. In terms of foster care, often times when parents are drug addicts or have other mental health issues that lead to children being taken into care, it’s explained to them that the parent is ‘too sick’ to take care of them right now and that they might be able to go home when they ‘get better’.
About the Author: Jenn Ehlers
Jenn is a central Virginia native who received her BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia in 2012. Since then she has worked for a local mental health agency and the Department of Social Services in various capacities and has been involved in her community’s efforts to create a Trauma Informed Network. Currently Jenn works in vocational rehab and mentors youth in foster care. When she isn’t working, Jenn enjoys writing stories, anything and everything Harry Potter, and spending time with her niece and nephew.
**Transfiguring Adoption is a nonprofit organization seeking to nurture growth in foster and adoptive families by giving a HOOT about their families. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its review to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds.