Voicing cheeky animals a beastly good time
DOCTOR Dolittle, Hugh Lofting's eccentric physician who can talk to animals, turns 100 this year so it's only fitting he gets a modern makeover for a new generation.
Robert Downey Jr takes up the baton in a new live-action adventure film blending actors with lifelike CGI animals.
"It really is a timeless narrative," says John Cena, who voices the polar bear Yoshi. "It's very difficult to get an adult to use their imagination sometimes. I think the intrigue of 'What if animals could talk and understand us? What would they say?' is an easy avenue to make even the most curmudgeon adult use their imagintoin, which is why the narrative still has success 100 years later."
Cena is part of a star-studded line-up of Hollywood A-listers lending their voices to creatures great and small.
Emma Thompson is Polly the Macaw, Rami Malek is Chee-Chee the mountain gorilla, Octavia Spencer is Dab-Dab the duck, Tom Holland is Jip the long-haired lurcher and Selena Gomez is Betsy the giraffe.
Dolittle's menagerie of animals are his family and each has a quirk or ailment.
For Yoshi, he's a polar bear with poor circulation who struggles in the cold.
"What really hit home and where we found our stride was when they decided to make him this positive character - a big softie," Cena says.
"The word warm came up, and all of a sudden he's not a polar bear who hates the cold but a polar bear to seek warmth. Just a small note like that changes the whole delivery and tone and character."
Yoshi has a special relationship with Plimpton the ostrich, voiced by comedian Kumail Nanjiani. Cena says they had a lot of fun playing on the odd-couple pairing, which would never be found in nature.
"We share argumentative moments, and these very bonding moments of friendship. It's a really sweet relationship," he says.
"To know we did it in different rooms in different places is a testament to Kumail and the director and producers."
Comedian Craig Robinson also enjoyed the collaborative style of director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana).
The Office star's talent for adlibbing earned him a bigger role in the film, which follows Dolittle and his furry and feathered friends as they set sail on an epic adventure to find the mythical Eden Tree, the fruit of which will cure Queen Victoria's mysterious illness.
"I was originally going to be the mouse, but after we went into the booth a couple of times they wanted to make my character be part of the journey and it turned into a bigger part," Robinson says.
"I love being in the studio. It's different than being on set. There's still the collaboration but there's more of a freedom when you're in the booth. Even just performing the lines, you can get as big as you want to. On camera you've got to be believable."
Robinson voices Kevin, a squirrel who is accidentally shot by young animal lover Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett). Stubbins rushes the injured rodent to Dolittle, who performs emergency surgery to save Kevin's life.
As Kevin himself admits, he's "too beautiful to die". It's one of many scene-stealing moments for Robinson.
Reluctantly taking on Stubbins as his apprentice, both Stubbins and Kevin join the ragtag group of misfits on their adventure.
"Kevin is so dramatic; he plays the victim. It's him against the world," Robinson says.
"I saw a squirrel today and we both went (makes squeaking noises). There's a little kinship there.
"Even though Kevin was a bit dramatic - and possibly even a little self-serving - he made me a better man."
Dolittle opens in cinemas on Thursday.