Dr. Dolittle

June 26, 1998

DR. DOLITTLE starts the same way DIRTY WORK did: with Norm MacDonald narrating a wacky story about the main character when he was a kid. But instead of being the main character himself and talking about a dog getting violated by another dog, MacDonald turns out to be voicing a dog named Lucky who later gets violated Jeffrey Tambor. The main character is a live action human played by the voice of the dragon in MULAN, Eddie Murphy.

John Dolittle is a medical doctor with a gorgeous wife named Lisa (Kristen Wilson, who played Robin Givens in TYSON) and cute daughters Maya (Kyla Pratt, LOVE & BASKETBALL) and Charisse (Raven-Symone of later-Cosby-Show fame) and he’s kind of a self-absorbed dick who’s in such denial about having been able to talk to animals when he was a kid that he refuses to even learn what type of animal his daughter’s guinea pig is. It says right there in the title that he’s a doctor, but they still give him the standard issue Workaholic Dad Neglects His Family storyline. His office is working on a Big Merger that would make him rich, and his partner Dr. Weller (Oliver Platt, EXECUTIVE DECISION, also in BULWORTH that summer) is always hassling him because they have to impress Mr. Calloway (Peter Boyle, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, had been in SPECIES II in April) into signing The Big Contract after The Big Presentation.

But in the middle of this John almost runs over the Norm MacDonald dog and hears it call him a bonehead. Suddenly he hears animals speaking everywhere, and talks to them, and thinks he’s going crazy. Many have celebrity voices, including Chris Rock as the guinea pig Rodney, Albert Brooks as a depressed tiger, Jenna Elfman as an owl, Julie Kavner and Garry Shandling as an unhappy pigeon couple, John Leguizamo as a rat, Paul Reubens as a raccoon, Jonathan Lipnicki as a tiger cub, and Ellen Degeneres, Brian Doyle-Murray and Gilbert Gottfried as dogs. I didn’t recognize him, but Tom Towles (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES) apparently plays a german shepherd.

While the family is vacationing in a cabin, John helps an owl with a wing injury, so word spreads throughout the forest and animals start following him around asking for help with various maladies. The middle section of the movie is a bunch of protracted, contrived scenes of him running around flustered trying to hide from everybody that he has ducks in the bath tub or that he’s doing CPR on a rat or whatever. The other humans have pretty thankless roles, especially Wilson, who spends so many scenes just acting confused and worried as he repeatedly rejects sex to go bark at a dog or drive away with no explanation.

(We hear him speaking English with the animals, but it’s indicated that people hear him making animal sounds, which must be very strange.)

There’s another straight man in Dr. Reiss (Richard Schiff, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, also in DEEP IMPACT that summer) though Dr. Fish (Tambor, THREE O’CLOCK HIGH, who would be in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY later that summer) gets to do some comedy, being a veterinarian insulted by this M.D.’s assumption that he knows how to diagnose animals.

Ossie Davis (BUBBA HO-TEP) may have the worst part as John’s dad who lives with the family. He stands around looking concerned until, at the very end, he admits that his son can talk to animals and that he shouldn’t have made him suppress it. It’s kinda nice but more laughable that they turn this into a plea for tolerance of people’s quirks. The doctor ends up in a mental hospital (with Don Calfa from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and decides to ignore his abilities so that they’ll let him out, but then he feels guilty when he sees his nerd daughter Maya follow his example and abandon her science experiments. So, fuck it, he decides to (somehow) kidnap the suicidal tiger from the circus and do surgery on it.

Hey, he’s just a non-comformist, all right? Let him be himself.

Another thing it has in common with DIRTY WORK: a joke about ROCKY III. When the tiger is feeling sorry for himself and says that people don’t like tigers, the doctor rebuts him by bringing up “Eye of the Tiger.” Strangely my mind had gone to the tiger jacket in ROCKY II. I guess tigers and the ROCKY series really are intertwined in the popular imagination.

One thing it does not have in common: very many jokes that made me laugh. I guess Rock (also in LETHAL WEAPON 4 that summer) is okay. Murphy does well with his character. But for my tastes it’s definitely not funny enough to make up for the half-assedness of the parts we’re supposed to take seriously. Unsurprisingly the writers are sitcom vets: Nat Mauldin wrote on Barney Miller, Night Court and Capitol Critters before he got into movies with THE PREACHER’S WIFE (and later A CHRISTMAS STORY 2). Larry Levin wrote for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Seinfeld and later did I LOVE YOU, MAN. Some of those are good shows, of course – I’m just trying to say they approach this from a joke writer’s “okay, doctor who talks to animals – what generic story template can we use for that?” type of angle.

The concept, of course, comes from a series of children’s stories by Hugh Lofting, originally conceived in the trenches of World War I as an escape from the horrors or the tedium. In the stories the doctor lived in Victorian England, had specific animal friends (Gub-Gub, Dab-Dab, the Pushmi-pullyu) not used here, and travelled around having “Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts.” The character had already been adapted into an animated short by Lotte Reiniger and a radio drama by the time of the famous 1967 movie musical starring Rex Harrison, now somewhat infamous as an allegedly undeserving best picture nominee. A new movie version directed by Stephen Gaghan (SYRIANA) and starring Robert Downey Jr. (UP THE ACADEMY) is coming next year.

Of all these, the ’98 version clearly has the least to do with the original character. They just wanted the name and a doctor who talks to animals. It’s clearly a movie that was made because of BABE‘s innovation of adding digital mouths to live action animals to make them lip sync. Like BABE it switches between that technique and realistic puppets made by the Jim Henson Creature Workshop. Kinda sad that this cheesy red-letters-on-white-background PG-13 family comedy made nearly $300 million in the same year that the beautiful BABE: PIG IN THE CITY flopped and got people fired.

I’ve noted before that Eddie “My Girl Wants to Party All the Time” Murphy always puts a bunch of R&B songs on his movies. It seems kind of funny to hear these serious songs on the end credits after the nutty professor goes around farting up the city or whatever. Dr. Dolittle: The Album has songs by Ray J, Montell Jordan, Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Jody Watley, Dawn Robinson and Tisha Campbell-Martin, etc. The one that made me laugh is the end credits one by Changing Faces and Ivan Matias, because it’s called “Do Little Things” and they just figured out a way to play with the name “Dolittle” without having to, like, sing about a veterinarian sticking his hand in a dog’s ass. According to Wikipedia, the album was “a huge success” and went double platinum. I guess the biggest song was “Are You That Somebody?” by Aaliyah, which was nominated for a Grammy.

DR. DOLITTLE had one theatrical sequel in 2001 and three DTV ones starring Pratt as the grown up Maya and MacDonald as the dog (DR. DOLITTLE 3 [2006], DR. DOLITTLE: TAIL TO THE CHIEF [2008] and DR. DOLITTLE: MILLION DOLLAR MUTTS [2009]).

For actress-turned-TV-director-turned-theatrical-feature-director Betty Thomas this was the third in a string of successes that started with THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE (1995) and PRIVATE PARTS (1997). It was her biggest hit until ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL made her the pre-WONDER WOMAN highest grossing female director of all time.

“Squeak not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But squeak the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them.” –Kant

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17 Responses to “Dr. Dolittle”

  1. I remember this movie being unbearably (not a pun) bad. I have nothing else to add to this conversation other than I don’t like the original movie either.

  2. I can say that I do remember enjoying this when I was 13, which I guess was the target audience (this was PG-13?!) even though it seemed like fare for a younger audience (IIRC the sequel skewered younger). These days it seems like the kind of mostly competent blandness that interests me less than anything, but maybe I’d still enjoy it, who knows? Seems like a pretty big step down from BRADY and PRIVATE PARTS though.

    Worth mentioning I suppose that this inspired a grand total of four sequels, including 3 DTV sequels about the Doolittle daughter going to camp, the white house, hanging around with a stunt dog etc. I saw two of those during a wierd period of my life. Can’t recall if it was Simone or not

  3. My best friend had the framed poster of this on the wall. He had this huge frame, got the poster for 50 cent in the video store (back then we bought all kinds of used posters from there and plastered our walls with it) and one day had nothing better to do than putting the poster in the frame and both on the wall. No other reason. That’s how he rolls. I love that guy.

    Anyway, it’s weird how sometimes something as simple as “Eddie Murphy and a bunch of talking animals with celebrity voices” can become a huge hit. I saw the movie once, didn’t hate it, but never bothered to watch it again. But thinking about it made me realize that this came seriously out during a time, when family movies were over here dubbed by real voice actors instead of random celebrities! So yeah, the German dub might be superior to the original version! (Although I can’t confirm it.)

  4. Is this the film that started his run of high-concept family travesties? I had the honor of auditioning for several – one about wishes, one where he can only say 1000 words, and “Starship Dave,” which became “Meet Dave.” I was auditioning for the same role as Louis CK and Mike Birbiglia and I have no clue why I was there or why one of those guys didn’t get the role

  5. Hey, you changed the top line of the site from “Then fuck you, Jack.” I like it. I couldn’t be happier unless you said, “Outlaw Vern IS Outlaw Vern’s Reviews of the Films of Cinema.”

    I too hated Dr. Dolittle remake. My friends thought it would be funny to get drunk and then go to see this. I was still 20 so I went sober, but we all hated it equally. They confirmed that even being totally drunk couldn’t make it funny.

    Hey Vern, I actually never knew where “Fuck you, Jack” came from. What was the reference?

  6. My main memory of this is ARMAGEDDON being sold out, and some frat dude dramatically saying to his friend in the multiplex lobby, “I am not seeing DOCTOR DOLITTLE.”

    Fred – I’m not sure any movies are funnier when you’re drunk. You just want to go outside or something instead. I think that’s why the weed comedy became a more marketable subgenre than the beer comedy. Not that I know about any of this.

  7. I saw this on video as a kid and I remember literally nothing about it, I think I saw the sequel too and remember even less.

    Well, save for one thing, are these the movies that feature a joke about a fat lady that can’t stop eating crabs even though she’s allergic to shellfish? There’s even a scene where she sneaks into a bathroom and pulls a crab out of her purse like she’s a heroine junky, that could be a different movie though.

    Remember when the only time you saw a fat woman in a movie was as the butt of a joke? Pretty funny how these wholesome 90s comedies have scenes that are almost as dated as Al Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy! Oh Mammy!”

    And that’s what was weird about 90s culture, although every decade in American culture has a weird duality to it, today it’s the fact that America has the most liberal culture since the 70s but our President makes Reagan and Bush look like boy scouts, but the 90s was a decade in which cynicism was in vogue, think the Simpsons, think Nine Inch Nails, think Marilyn Manson, think the general Gen X attitude, but the flipside was the most wholesome stuff seen in American culture since the ’50s, movies like DR. DOLITTLE, which epitomize bland, wholesome family entertainment of the time.

    And looking at how fucking terrible things are in America 20 years later after the wholesomeness of DR. DOLITTLE makes me think about the Dostoevsky esque idea of life just being a cruel joke.

    I find it appropriate the character was conceived in the trenches of WW1, a perfect example of the Hell on Earth mankind can create for itself and for fun let’s imagine what Hells that might be awaiting us in the 21st century, one that would make the trenches look tame.

    So yeah, not a fan of DR. DOLITTLE.

  8. Fred – Thanks for noticing. I feel like it’s not really selling out because I kept the fuck word in the title for almost 20 years. But a couple years ago I was at a wedding talking to a nice older gentleman about what I do and he brought it up on his phone and I thought “Hmm, maybe I should rethink that.”

    The phrase wasn’t a reference to anything except I think when people on a newsgroup were telling me to start a websight I thanked them and then said “unless you’re being sarcastic in which case fuck you jack” or something like that.

    It is weird that DR. DOLITTLE and DIRTY WORK are the same rating.

  9. Good lord, the Top 10 US Grossers of 1998 include this, ARMAGEDDON, THE WATERBOY, GODZILLA and PATCH ADAMS. I’m as guilty as anyone of sometimes wishing they’re weren’t so many of these shared universe rebootquels etc, but sometimes I am given pause for thought.

    On the plus side things were a little rosier internationally, by which I mean LETHAL WEAPON 4 squeaked in at #10

  10. Griff: Yeah, that’s the movie with the crab lady.

    It’s interesting that back then people were more concerned about Eddie Murphy making a kids movie (Not because of his early 80s potty mouth, but a few years before that he apparently had a transsexual prostitute in his car, although they weren’t caught in the act and if I remember right his defense was that he was giving a friend a ride home.), than a joke were food allergies are used for harmless shenanigans. (Just a few years later was a HUGE uproar about food allergy jokes in Will Smith’s HITCH!)

    Also I’m not sure how much has really changed in terms of fat shaming jokes in popculture. Just like everybody else, they got a bit more serious representation in film and on TV and people like Kevin James or Melissa McCarthy were actually able to have a career in comedy, that wasn’t simply based on “Haha, look at that fatty!”, but let’s be honest: Overweight people still seem to be the last group that you can mock in public without having too many people complain about it. (Which is weird, since they seem to be the majority in this world!)

    Vern, I noticed the new headline a few days ago too, but it was a “Wait. Did something change or was it always like that?” moment to me. I felt incredibly stupid when Fred pointed out that the good ol’ “Then Fuck You, Jack” is gone.

  11. CJ – Yeah, but I think fat jokes at least get called out a bit more now on twitter and social justice blogs for the lazy writing that they are. Growing up in the ’80s, these jokes were all over movies like The Goonies, Last Crusade, Stand By Me, certain John Candy vehicles. It’s like, pick a real target. I guess that’s one of the positives social media has brought. McCarthy definitely complicates things, as I’ve heard the arguments for her brand of humour go both ways.

    I feel like two of the most strangely open comedy targets are people of very short stature (Austin Powers movies, Bad Santa, etc) and people with albinism (The Heat, Not Another Teen Movie, etc).

  12. Well, I haven’t seen every Melissa McCarthy movie, but on top of my head I can’t remember any fat jokes with her, unless you count the movies where she is shrill and obnoxious and put that in the “stereotypical fatty” department, which would be a bit of a stretch.

    The thing with little people also got a bit better IMO. There are still very few good roles for them, but it seems like in general the industry has at least caught up on the fact that “putting a dwarf in it” isn’t automatically a joke. Also in terms of Mini Me, you can say that he started out as a sight gag, but then became much more, as far as character arcs in silly comedies go. And I fully disagree about BAD SANTA, where Tony Cox character was pretty much equal with all the other main players and the only size related jokes were about how he made John Ritter purposely uncomfortable by threatening to sue him over discrimination.

    Unfortunately I don’t think much will change about Albinos soon, unless movies stop making jokes about other people’s look in general.

  13. CJ – is it the first or second movie with the crab lady?

    Palermo – the joke in NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE is I think specifically thumbing its nose at political correctness since isn’t the albino lady a hippie singing a bad folk song about having to wear sunscreen? ie the type of person to get really offended over jokes like that.

    Ah, NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE, what an underrated little movie, it’s not great, but it has some actual funny jokes, sticks to only spoofing it’s genre rather than anything that came out recently like other “movie” MOVIES and has a naked Cerina Vincent, that makes it an ok movie in my book.

    “oh yeah? Well you put the “ewwww” in “jiu jitsu” and the “ism” in the “this is all just a defense mechanism!””

  14. I’m 90% sure that it was the first movie, because I can’t remember the 2nd one (yes, I saw that too), except that it was about a bear and Uncle Phil from FRESH PRINCE was named in the opening credits, despite having only a short cameo.

  15. I should point put the parenthetical examples I gave are just the first things to pop into my head that feature those tropes. I think they are a continued problem in films, but there’s different levels of nuance to how they’re used.

    I also warmed to NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE after a couple viewings. It’s too bad because Rotten Tomatoes actually highlighted my negative pull-quote about it as “Best Take” when they used to do that, and I felt a bit of regret, because lines like “Watch out, you glasses and ponytail freak!” are pretty funny.

  16. I knew I saw this in the theaters, but everything Vern described sounded unfamiliar to me.

    Then I realized I only saw part 2.

    And like Palermo”s story with part 1 the only reason I saw part 2 was because Fast & the Furious was sold out. Opening night! What a country!

    Thats all I have to contribute to this.

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