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Dr. Dolittle

Despite Changing The Basic Story, Murphy's Doc Has the Right Prescription for Laughs

(This review originally appeared in the June 25-July 1, 1998 Long Island Voice.)

Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels

I’m a purist, which is why I’m surprised I liked Dr. Dolittle. The changes between book and the film are numerous. In Hugh Lofting’s original, John Dolittle is a dedicated veterinarian whose attempts to treat his patients is exacerbated by his inability to talk to them, until his parrot Polynesia offers to teach him animal languages. Dolittle is also a white, hard-core bachelor in 19th-century England. (Which is why he looked so much like Rex Harrison in the ’60s movie version.)

Eddie Murphy’s John Dolittle is a family man — though out of touch with his family — and a people doctor. Rather than consciously learning animal languages, a blow to the head reawakens his long suppressed gift and disrupts his life.

Murphy has always been a good actor as well as a comedian, though the latter has overshadowed the former. His transition from a stick-up-the-butt doctor who is a stranger to his family into a man who rediscovers his heart is at the core of the film, an emotional transformation that lifts the movie above what could have just been a string of jokes.

That said, the jokes are pretty damn good, too. A few are a bit tacky, but the audience still roared with laughter. Animal lovers can rest easy. The guinea pig in the bathroom scene and the dog/thermometer scene both feature very lifelike animatronic animals from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. But while in bad taste, both of these scenes are also very funny.

Hearing the animal’s side of the conversation is also a first among the retellings of Doctor Dolittle, but it also explains why it’s so hard for John to ignore his gift even though he desperately wants to. Imagine walking through a world where you can understand every bird, squirrel, dog, etc. that you pass on the street. And you worry about having to say hello to the neighbors.

The vocal talent for the animals is A-list. Chris Rock as the guinea pig probably gets the most laughs because he has nearly as much screen time as Lucky the dog (voice of Norm MacDonald), but Lucky has the more dramatic role. Julie Kavner and Garry Shandling as bickering pigeons are great, and Albert Brooks hits just the right note as a depressed, sick tiger. John Leguizamo and Reni Santoni are a blast as obnoxious rats. It seems rather appropriate that Dharma & Greg’s Jenna Elfman is the voice of the wise owl who starts Dolittle on his veterinary career.

The one kid-sensitive area is the explanation of why John stopped talking to animals. It gets a bit heavy handed and the sight of his beloved dog (voice of Ellen DeGeneres) being taken away by the Animal Shelter could be a trifle disturbing to very sensitive children. To its credit, the film later makes up for it by having John rescue a dog from the pound.

My only complaint is that the movie should have taken an additional five to 10 minutes to delve more into Grandpa Dolittle’s turnaround from someone who wanted his son to be normal to one who encourages both his son and his youngest granddaughter to embrace their uniqueness. Ossie Davis is a wonderful actor so his portrayal hints at the reasons, but giving him the screen time to do it properly would have been nice.

The trick as to why this radically different adaptation worked is that while the details changed drastically, it stayed true to the core idea. But enough highfalutin’ analysis. The bottom line is that your kids will love Doctor Dolittle, and you’ll laugh, too.

(A 20th-Century Fox release. Directed by Betty Thomas.)

 

Review 1998 Long Island Voice. Accompanying stills 1999 20th-Century Fox.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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