Dr. Dolittle

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Betty Thomas

REVIEWED: 07-13-98

I can tell you the exact moment when I gave up on the new, modernized film version of the children's classic Doctor Doolittle. An owl has spread word throughout the animal kingdom that a human doctor has the ability to speak to and to understand the beasts of land, air, and sea, as well as the compassion to fix whatever's ailing them. In response, all sorts of flocks and herds have descended upon Doolittle's San Francisco home and are sharing their litany of complaints. First up are three sheep, who look up at the Doc and say, in unison, "Our butts hurt."

Now, this may just be a vague allusion to a dirty joke (something involving lonely farmers, no doubt); but I have a different theory. I believe the filmmakers just think it's funny to hear a talking animal say "butt." The sheep chorus is not the first anal-related gag in the film, and it's certainly not the last, but it is the most inexplicable and most gratuitous. It marks the point at which any hope for a clever, cute movie about the secret thoughts of animals disappears down a smelly hole.

Eddie Murphy plays the titular hero, no doubt in an attempt to follow up on the success of his 1996 updating of The Nutty Professor. But that comeback film offered Murphy multiple roles and multiple opportunities to be funny. Here, he's reduced to playing the straight man to a gaggle of voice-over talent. Granted, there are some high-quality names behind those voices, including Garry Shandling as a whiny pigeon, Norm MacDonald as a surprisingly sweet-natured mutt, Albert Brooks as a depressed tiger, and Chris Rock as a sassy guinea pig (not to mention full-body appearances by such top-notch character actors as Oliver Platt, Paul Giamatti, and Pruitt Taylor Vince). But as funny as these stars are at times, their skills are buried in a flurry of flat lines.

Doctor Doolittle seems to have borrowed the idea from the execrable Theodore Rex that if your anthropomorphic creature can't say anything interesting, you should just keep him talking fast in the hope no one will notice. As a result, the audience is treated to a lot of animal speeches along the lines of, "Hey! Whoa! What are you doing? Listen to me! Rectum!"

As for the plot, it's a careless afterthought revolving around a ruthless HMO's takeover scheme and Doolittle's attempts to be a better father to his neglected, unusually bright children. (Believe me, that reads better than it plays.) Although Doctor Doolittle could be charitably described as "amiable," it's hard to accept that a film with this much talent in front of the camera could be so crude and unimaginative. One wonders if the filmmakers thought the premise would be enough to start with, and once the cameras started rolling, they'd get by on whatever they could pull out of their...well, you get the idea.

--Noel Murray

Full Length Reviews
Dr. Dolittle
Dr. Dolittle
Dr. Dolittle

Capsule Reviews
Dr. Dolittle
Dr. Dolittle
Dr. Dolittle
Dr. Dolittle

Other Films by Betty Thomas
Private Parts
The Brady Bunch Movie

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