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This year is the 100th anniversary of the creation of Doctor Dolittle, who first appeared in Hugh Lofting's 1920 "The Story of Doctor Dolittle." Well, in truth, the character goes back a few years before that original publication, to letters Lofting wrote to his children while he was away fighting in World War I. The now-classic children's story about a physician who tends to animal patients — and who can speak to animals in their own languages — has endured for a century in many different variations.
The latest version of the character appears in DOLITTLE. The movie stars Robert Downey Jr. as the good doctor and features a host of great actors voicing his menagerie of animal friends. DOLITTLE is also a great window into lessons for kids in grades 3-5. Scholastic has put together a set of plans which use the movie to reinforce map, science and language skills, as well as basic observational skills that are crucial in everyday life.
Before anything else, Robert Downey has something to say — a note of appreciation to the teachers in his own life who helped shape the course of his future.
You could say that Dolittle's ability to communicate with animals is a special power, but in reality it is based on observation and empathy, which are both fundamental to communication. Children can learn not only that a cat "talks" by making sounds, but that the motions of its ears and tail can tell us more than any sounds.
The lessons in Scholastic's DOLITTLE packet also introduce the same impressive animals seen in the movie, such as a silverback gorilla, giraffes, and sugar glider possums. Animals more exotic than cats might help some of the ideas stick with kids — especially with the note that gorillas can "speak" through scent.
Further lessons reinforce map-reading skills and teamwork concepts which fold in ideas about domestic roles that aren't broken down by binary roles.
Beyond the lesson ideas from Scholastic, looking at the different versions of Doctor Dolittle throughout his century of existence is a way to open a window on how characters and stories can change depending on their social context. Remember Eddie Murphy's 1990s version of Doctor Dolittle, seen above? Dolittle was born into a world that is very different from ours, but he has held on to his parcel of cultural land for a long time.
What is it about Dolittle that keeps him on our screens and bookshelves? Ideas of fantasy and adventure work in his favor, and as some of the lessons above suggest, there's also a deeper connection to the natural world around us. The Doctor doesn't always have it easy, but he enjoys a rapport with animals that many people would envy, and with which children can easily relate.
All images courtesy of Universal Studios.
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