Doctor Dolittle (1998)

reviewed by
Brian Takeshita


DOCTOR DOLITTLE
A Film Review by Brian Takeshita
Rating:  ** out of ****

In the mid and late eighties, Eddie Murphy was the king of movie comedy. 48 HOURS, TRADING PLACES, BEVERLY HILLS COP, and COMING TO AMERICA, among others, put him firmly at the top of box office draws. Then his career began to slide with films such as BOOMERANG, THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN, and A VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, only to revived with the hilariously outrageous THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. It seemed as though Eddie was back and out for revenge. Then he followed it up with METRO, and the whole slide happened again. We got films like the despicable HOLY MAN and the subject of this review, DOCTOR DOLITTLE.

DOCTOR DOLITTLE is a remake of the 1967 Rex Harrison musical in which Dr. John Dolittle has the uncanny ability to talk to the animals. In this 1998 version, Eddie Murphy plays the title character, this time a family man and general medical practitioner in San Francisco, California. His life, unlike that of the 1967 Dr. Dolittle, is anything but fanciful. His children are giving him the stresses that young children do, and his practice is about to be acquired by a big HMO. One evening, while driving home, he nearly runs over a dog and ends up crashing into a concrete trash can. As the canine walks away, however, it yells an insult at Dolittle in what appears to be perfect English. So resurfaces Dolittle's ability to speak to and understand the language of animals, which he repressed for decades following a traumatic event with his childhood pet dog.

A main difference between this version and the one from 1967 is that the communication between the Murphy Dolittle and the animals is in English, whereas the Harrison Dolittle communicated in animal noises. This allows the animals to be quite a bit more humanized as we hear what they are saying, but it also degenerates the film into a one-joke prospect, as nearly all the humor comes from listening to a dog talk about the way the vet takes his temperature or a horse talk about his bad eyesight, for example. It also upstages Murphy, who is comedically relegated to facilitating the appearance of one animal to the next. At least that's the way it seems, since his contributions are not all that funny. The rest of the humor in the film revolves around Dolittle's attempts to reconcile the fact that his ability to understand animals as a child was not just a fantasy after all, and his equally daunting task of convincing others that he's not crazy. Unfortunately, Murphy's reactions to hearing animals talk largely consists of him screaming in surprise, and the strange looks he gets from people around him aren't new enough to elicit many viewer laughs.

One thing I wasn't sure of when it came to talking to the animals was whether or not Dolittle were actually speaking to them in English or if we were listening to a translation of his barking at dogs and hooting at owls. The confusion arises when his wife (Kristen Wilson) catches him talking to his dog Lucky (voiced by Norm Macdonald), and says, "You were barking," even though we only hear him talking. At other times, however, Dolittle is caught talking to an animal, and a passerby obviously hears what he's saying. This might be a little nitpicky, but it's enough to distract.

Both real and fake animals were used in filming this movie, the latter provided by Jim Hensen's Creature Studio, the same award-winning folks who gave us the animatronic characters in BABE and it's less-acclaimed sequel. The Hensen legacy lives on in the wonderfully lifelike appearance of the talking creatures, but if you've seen BABE, you've pretty much seen the effects already. There's nothing new here except for a few different types of animals, really, and at this point it's only enough to serve a function, not contribute substantially to the movie as a whole.

Screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin fashioned an uninspired screenplay which works by the numbers. We've got a daughter who doesn't fit in (Kyla Pratt), a grandfather who is wiser than his son (Ossie Davis), a greedy medical partner (Oliver Platt), a timid medical partner (Richard Schiff), an overbearing big business guy (Peter Boyle)....it's like a form where all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Everything you think is going to happen happens, and that's all there is to it. I wish I could say there were more, but there just isn't.

There are a lot of cases where the comedy in DOCTOR DOLITTLE comes close to hitting the mark, but in almost no case is it dead-on. As a result, we only get a steady stream of mediocre jokes and not the kind of side-splitting humor we're used to from Eddie Murphy. Well, I suppose these days we're not even really used to that anymore, only hoping for it once again.

Review posted June 21, 1999

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