Screenplay : Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin (based on the stories by Hugh Lofting)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Eddie Murphy (Dr. John Dolittle), Kristen Wilson (Lisa Dolittle), Oliver Platt (Dr. Mark Weller), Ossie Davis (Archer Dolittle), Richard Schiff (Dr. Gene Reiss), Kyla Pratt (Maya Dolittle), Raven-Symone (Charisse Dolittle)
"Doctor Dolittle" is a sometimes gross, sometimes sweet-natured comedy about the value of not fitting in. The story is about a man who can talk to animals, and because this mysterious gift that makes him different, people brand him "weird." The movie puts forth a good (if somewhat overstated) message that sometimes what some label "weird" should not automatically be labeled "bad" as well. After all, as the movie points out, Albert Einstein was weird. In fact, it is weirdness that makes this world interesting.
In the titular role as the doctor who hears and responds to the call of the wild, Eddie Murphy, once the King of Profanity and every parent's worst nightmare, continues on his slow turn toward more family-friendly entertainment. Two years ago, when his career seemed to be slipping into oblivion, he resurrected himself with the hilarious remake of "The Nutty Professor." "Doctor Dolittle" runs in roughly the same vein, in that it is a remake of an earlier comedy, it's PG-13 instead of R-rated, and it allows Murphy to strut his stuff without being overbearing. Murphy gets plenty of laughs in "Doctor Dolittle," but most of them are not from his mugging alone in front of the camera, but rather from his work as the straight man to a great ensemble cast of talking animals.
When the movie opens, Dr. Dolittle is in the midst of closing a merger between his small medical practice and a large HMO. His two partners, Dr. Mark Weller (Oliver Platt) and Dr. Gene Reiss (Richard Schiff) have conflicting feelings about the deal. Weller is in it for the money; he's greedy to the core and doesn't mind saying so. Reiss, on the other hand, is worried about losing the quality of patient care and having to cut back on staff if their practice becomes part of a massive conglomerate. Dolittle stands somewhere in the middle, but it isn't hard to see that his passion for medicine is waning (here the movie delivers several knocks to the current medical system, making not-so-subtle suggestions that doctors are a little too business-oriented these days).
Dolittle is saved by his sudden realization that he can converse with animals -- their various medical problems inspire him again as a doctor -- but not before it almost ruins him. His talent for talking to animals stems from his childhood, but his father (Ossie Davis) thought it strange and eventually convinced his son of the same. Dolittle stopped talking to the animals for many years, until one night when he's driving home and almost runs over a dog. As the dog walks away, Dolittle hears him mutter in comedian Norm Macdonald's unmistakable dry drawl, "Why don't you watch where you're going, bonehead." And suddenly everything changes.
Next thing Dolittle knows, he can't stop hearing the animals. The movie is filled with an assortment of chattering beasts large and small, of the house pet, barnyard, and circus-variety. There's a jive-talking guinea pig (Chris Rock), a touchy-feely owl (Jenna Elfman), a depressed tiger (Albert Brooks), a self-hating pigeon (Garry Shandling), and even a couple of sarcastic, greasy rats (Reni Santoni and John Leguizamo). All these animals are brought to life with an effective combination of digital effects and the always wondrous animatronic work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. While most of the animals are not as memorable as those in "Babe" (1995), they are still personable and unique. The movie depicts the animals as being just as varied as humans: some are nice, some aren't.
While Dolittle parleys with his newfound friends, his wife, Lisa (Kristen Wilson), thinks he's lost it, and his two daughters, Maya (Kyla Pratt ) and Charisse (Raven-Symone) don't know what to make of it. Maya is actually sympathetic to her father's plight, because she's a shy, quiet girl who feels close to animals herself. She's much like Dolittle was when he was a boy; but by growing up, Dolittle has forgotten his childhood experiences (as too many adults do), and he often chides Maya for not making friends and spending too much time with her experiments in her room.
"Doctor Dolittle" was directed by Betty Thomas, who brought humanity to Howard Stern in last year's "Private Parts." Here she does similar work, but instead of making the repulsive approachable, she takes a children's story and makes it witty and slick enough for an adult audience, while also infusing obvious lessons for the younger generation about acceptance and tolerance for those who are different.
Of course, this is not to overlook the humor of "Doctor Dolittle," because it's very funny. Much of the humor is of the bathroom nature, with several scatological jokes dealing in pigeon poop and at least a handful of fart scenes. Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin get credit for the screenplay, but one has to suspect that much of the animal banter supplied by the many aforementioned actors and actresses was improvised during recording.
©1998 James Kendrick