Wayback Wednesday: Dr. Dolittle (1998)

We need to bring back “talking animal movies” as a mainstream genre.

Disney+ is such a gift. I swear I’m not a paid spokesperson in any way (although I WISH I could be raking in that Disney money) but I have nothing but undying praise for the platform. Besides being able to binge all of the movies and TV series that defined my childhood, it’s also been hugely beneficial in helping me find movies for my Wayback reviews. Like this week. With the upcoming release of Dolittle (2020), I decided to venture into the Disney vault (which has been doubled with content from Fox) and re-visit one of Eddie Murphy’s first ventures into family content: Dr. Dolittle (1998).

Screen Shot 2020-01-12 at 8.43.01 PM
Credit: imdb.com / 20th Century Fox

Inspired by the series of children’s stories of the same name, Dr. Dolittle follows John Dolittle, a successful surgeon who discovers he has the power to communicate with animals. Despite his friends and family thinking he’s lost his mind, John begins to treat the sick animals, which include everything from rats and pigeons to a tiger with a head injury.

I watched this movie and its sequel, Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001), so many times that I thought Eddie Murphy’s version was the original iteration. When I found out the character first appeared 80 years prior I was like, “what type of time-travel witchery?” While the adorable animals and the silly humour kept me coming back to the Dr. Dolittle movies, their greatest appeal was their fulfillment of one of my greatest wishes come true. Haven’t we all at one time wished that we could speak to animals? That we could understand our pets, catch up with the squirrels in our backyard, befriend the birds that perched on our windowsill and sympathize with every exotic animal we visited at the zoo? Much like Home Alone (1990) – which you can check out my review for here – what makes Dr. Dolittle so enjoyable, especially for kids, is that aspect of wish fulfillment. Getting to see one of the scenarios so often played out in our heads expressed on screen is the magic that drives this fantasy movie. Pair that with a cuddly cast of comical critters and an endearing Eddie Murphy and you’ve got the ingredients for a solid family flick. Wow, was that the most alliteration ever used at Luke’s Living Room? I think it might have been.

Surprisingly, this is one of Eddie Murphy’s less impactful or entertaining roles for me. As the titular doctor he spends a large portion of the movie neutered as he works to convince himself that he’s simply lost his mind and can’t really hear animals talk. Usually the King of Charisma, Murphy is decidedly more subdued throughout the movie, relying on his legitimate acting ability rather than his signature zany antics. Murphy has proven his talent multiple times, most recently in the acclaimed Dolemite Is My Name (2019), but I’m ready for him to make his triumphant return to outrageous comedies. Murphy is a solid actor and his natural comedic talents make their way to the surface sporadically. But the movie spends so much time on John denying or explaining away his ability to communicate with animals, that some of the fun is lost. The best parts of Dr. Dolittle are of him helping the animals and I wish there were more of that.

Look, if you make a live-action movie featuring talking animals there’s a 90 per cent chance I’m seeing that movie. That’s just a fact. The cast, played by both live animals and realistic puppets, undoubtedly steal the show. Sorry young Raven-Symoné and Kyla Pratt. As much as I loved you on Disney Channel, there’s just no beating this all-star cast. Come on. Albert Brooks voicing an anxious, chronically ill tiger? I’m here for it! Featuring everyone from Chris Rock to Ellen DeGeneres to Jenna Elfman to John Leguizamo, each actor shines in their cameo, no matter the size.

Of course, the MVP is Norm Macdonald as Lucky, the Dolittle’s adopted dog. His voice is so distinct and so deadpan that you could listen to him narrate literally anything and it’d be hilarious. The comedy from the animals is so cartoony and wacky and y’know what? For a family movie like this, it totally works. There are so many legitimately laugh out loud hilarious moments and jokes that definitely went WAY over my head as a kid. Give it a re-watch now and you’ll be amazed with what they got away with. It’s also amazing what kind of stunts the filmmakers were able to get both the live animals and their puppet counterparts to do. Puppetry is so impressive and it’s an element of filmmaking that would be utilized more.

The humour in Dr. Dolittle is on point and there’s enough chemistry between Murphy and Pratt, who plays his daughter Maya, and Kristen Wilson who plays his wife, Lisa, to add in a heartwarming family angle. Murphy’s connection with other daughter Charisse, played by Symoné comes in the sequel. As good as the message is, the actual technical aspects of Dr. Dolittle are mediocre and what hold it back from being a better movie. The editing is choppy with many scenes happening without any set-up or resolution, appearing briefly and randomly. There are moments of suspense or emotion but the movie never lets them land. Instead, it ushers in yet another scene of John denying his gift. Or, yet another poop joke. There are a lot of great, witty jokes in this movie and then there are just as many “animals are gross” jokes. Its about 50/50.

For its time, Dr. Dolittle was a winning movie. For starters, it was a charming and welcome modern update of a classic tale in an age before we were fatigued with reboots. As a whole, it’s an enjoyable, innocent family comedy that’s worth a re-watch if you’re one of the 10 million people with Disney+. Having recently seen the upcoming Dolittle for myself, let’s just say that this late 90s romp is just what the doctor ordered.

Did you watch Dr. Dolittle a lot growing up? What are your favourite animal movies?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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