Published July 1, 1998
Dr Doolittle, directed by Betty Thomas, stars Eddie Murphy as the eponymous doctor who can talk to the animals. For the nineties, all the whimsy of Hugh Lofting’s literary creation and the earlier film version starring Rex Harrison has given way to post-modern joking as celebrity voices are put into animal mouths and made to say funny things about what used to be called their “animal functions”—or, sometimes, about their movies and careers. Along the way some satirical shafts are directed at HMOs, which seem to be the successors of the South African Apartheid regime and Russian neo-fascists as Hollywood’s villains du jour. There is a brief mention of Doolittle’s reluctance, on discovering his gift of animal tongues, “to end up like those guys in the street talking to themselves with dirt under their fingernails. . .and hair all matted; it’s not a cool look.”
But the guys in the street talking to themselves are now running things in the studios, so it is hardly surprising that the doctor is shown converting the whole world, even the wicked HMO chief, to anthropomorphism, instead of remaining the lovable eccentric he was born to be. Paradoxically, the film’s few moments of attempted seriousness are devoted to the proposition, first put forward by the talking dog Lucky (voice of Norm McDonald), that he, the doctor, the doctor’s cute little daughter and, indeed, everyone else, should “be what you are.” Oh, you mean like a talking dog? Or perhaps a comically suicidal tiger? Or a comically self-hating pigeon? Or a baboon Will Smith fan?
What these inspiring words actually seem to mean is that everybody should be not what he is but the boringly hip Eddie Murphy clone detectible behind each of those ostensibly disparate voices. This is Hollywood’s sassy, cool, humorous, attractive and intellectually negligible ideal, the perfect identikit movie fan. And the funniest thing about this movie, which offers up several good jokes, is its apparent belief that, once this process of homogenization and conformity is complete, the result will be a free-spirited individual.