Dr. Dolittle (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When I first heard that Twentieth Century Fox intended to re-make Dr. Dolittle with Eddie Murphy in the title role, I suspected that it was a bad move (the success of The Nutty Professor notwithstanding). Now that I have endured the 85 minute motion picture, I'm sure it was a bad move. Dr. Dolittle is supposed to be a lowbrow comedy with lots of laughs and a heartwarming message. Instead, it's a cloying, humorless motion picture whose only assets are the work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop and a couple of good one-liners by a pair of rodents.

Dr. Dolittle isn't so much a remake of Richard Fleischer's overlong 1967 musical (or the Hugh Lofting stories upon which it was based) as it is a complete re-interpretation of the premise and the main character. Dr. John Dolittle, M.D. (Murphy) is a normal, well-adjusted white collar professional who is looking to score a big financial windfall when he and his medical partners sell out to an HMO. Suddenly, one night, John's world is turned upside down. Following a fender-bender in which he almost hits a dog, a childhood "affliction" re-asserts itself -- he can now understand and speak with animals. This ability, which he had repressed because his father (Ossie Davis) disapproved of it, allows him to converse with dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, owls, goats, sheep, pigeons, tigers, etc. However, when his wife (Kristen Wilson) and friends find out about the situation, they fear he is going crazy, and decide to have him placed in a mental institution for observation and evaluation.

The film's theme, "To thine own self be true," is presented with as little subtlety as possible, resulting in a great deal of sickeningly artificial sentimentality. Surprisingly, the comedy is predominantly unfunny. When done right, lowbrow humor can be hilarious (you need look no further than the trailer for There's Something about Mary, which is attached to this film, for an example); when accomplished as in Dr. Dolittle, it's painful and embarrassing. If you are amused by the concepts of a dog having trouble with a rectal thermometer, Eddie Murphy giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a rat, and a pigeon dropping a load on Oliver Platt's face, then this may be your kind of movie. For me, the unpleasant mix of saccharine moralizing and salty gags is like eating bacon dipped in chocolate sauce.

As is almost always the case in animal-related motion pictures, the four-legged critters steal the show. In fact, this film would have been greatly improved if all the humans (except perhaps Murphy) had been eliminated. Such an occurrence would have effectively removed the pointless and idiotic subplots. Recognizable voices include Albert Brooks (as a tiger), Norm Macdonald (as Lucky the dog), Chris Rock (a guinea pig), John Leguizamo (a rat), Julie Kavner (a pigeon), Gary Shandling (another pigeon), Gilbert Gottfried (a dog), Ellen DeGeneres (another dog), and Jenna Elfman (an owl). Jim Henson's Creature Shop does a good job mixing live animals with animatronic ones; it's often difficult to tell what's real and what isn't. However, unlike in Babe, the king of talking animal movies, the menagerie is just window-dressing. In the absence of a reasonable plot, legitimate characters, and good jokes, it doesn't matter how impressive the animals look or how familiar they sound.

Eddie Murphy ends up playing the straight man, which is probably a mistake, since Murphy's low-key approach robs Dr. Dolittle of much-needed energy. Director Betty Thomas (Private Parts) seems to have designed this movie for a juvenile audience (who cares about the PG-13 rating, anyway?), since there isn't much in the film for adults (even for those who generally enjoy lowbrow comedy). For the most part, Dr. Dolittle is more likely to induce sleep than laughter.

Dr. Dolittle (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 1998-06-26
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1