Veterinary movie review “Doctor Dolittle” (1998)

  • May 21, 2017

This will be an ongoing series where I review movies that depict veterinarians.  So it’s a pretty niche type of review but one you won’t get anywhere else.

This is one warped movie. You have to wonder why the producers went to such convoluted lengths to get around to the basic premise that this guy can hear animals talk. As a kid he can hear animals speak and then starts taking up animal behavior such as sniffing people’s butts (oh that poor child actor!) when the parents realize he’s got problems and they bring in a priest and the kid’s dog attacks the priest and the dog is sent to the pound and the kid is traumatized and rejects animals from that day forth. There. Synopsis in one sentence.
As an adult he’s seen yelling at a puppy for no reason but to underscore his childhood trauma. We find out he’s a physician, not a veterinarian, which of course will cause me to rant later about how unlikely any physician is able to do our job. It’s not a hierarchy thing! It’s not as if physicians have been granted far superior abilities and all other medical professions are beneath them. Just as our clients who are nurses seem to think that their own job and knowledge is superior to any veterinarian’s. Further evidence is shown how little he knows about animals when he can’t tell the difference between a guinea pig and a hamster and he actually sets out kill-traps to catch the family’s escaped guinea pig. Yes, I know. Children’s movie. Played for laughs. Setting kill traps to catch a family pet. Hilarious!
He finds out he can talk to animals and takes a stick out of an owl’s wing. He gets a dog out of the pound who he had encountered before and takes him to a vet’s office. Humor is found in a German Shepherd expressing how he doesn’t want to be neutered. Always a good way to get children to remember that when they are adults to not neuter their pets, because the pets know what you’re doing and they don’t like it. Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle comes in telling the veterinarian what the problem is. The vet as played by Jeffrey Tambor, who is really funny, immediately identifies him as an M.D. and even refers to him as a “real doctor”. Ugh. Personally, my first thought would have been nurse, because I have had very few problems with physicians and dentists and the like pushing their medical experience into a diagnosis (exception is in the story at the end of this movie analysis. This scene takes place in the same room as a pet is dying. Really? That’s a bit weird. Then there’s the insinuation that the vet is spending too much time around the dog’s butt. Because that’s all we do as vets, euthanize and feel up dog butts. I understand that the level of humor we’re going for here is aimed at children, however (notice I didn’t say but) you have to wonder how kids ever go through that phase of wanting to be veterinarians if that is all that we seem to do. Even the dog says: “Why on Earth would a guy go into work like that?” Well, yes, the way you depict it in this movie doesn’t shine the best of lights on it. Makes you wonder what the writers had against their personal veterinarians. Then the vet leaves the thermometer in the butt and has to manually go after it. *sigh* Fine. Just let it go, Dean. Just let it go.
I’m going to shift gears away from scene by scene analyses. The credit for actually being able to take care of animals (rather than just euthanizing them and playing with their butts) goes to the medical doctor. Because, of course, the only difference in our jobs is the ability to talk with the patient. I recommend reading the previous sentence with a heavy sprinkling of sarcasm. Interestingly it’s more a lot of behavioral issues he’s fixing throughout the movie, which, yes, would be easier if we could talk to the animals, much like the great pet psychics of our era. Again, previous sentence = sarcasm (maybe there should be a sarcasm font). I do give credit that he starts reading up on anatomy and veterinary medicine. Thank you for that. Then we start getting the crossing of money issues versus satisfaction with the job. It shows he was happier and feeling like he was accomplishing stuff more back when he was a “poor” doctor starting out. You know, just like a veterinarian throughout their entire career. But, this is strange, because he’s always been able to talk with his human patients, so why is this sudden ability to talk with animals different? Why is that more rewarding? Was he not always able to treat his patients correctly considering he could talk with them? It’s difficult to see the difference here. Perhaps he should have been a psychiatrist. And why is making more money associated with decreased satisfaction in your job? It only seems like this kind of thing comes up in the medical professions. Movies like Wall Street show these guys making more money and being pretty darned happy about it.

Jeffrey Tambor’s Dr. Fish shows up again a little later to underscore how he is no help at all. He’s completely unable to restrain a cat properly and seems to be doing something with its butt when Dr. Dolittle calls for advice. This vet must have little to no staff (as per usual in movies with vets) because he answers his own phone and has no technician helping him. And another lesson passed on in this movie is that you can just call any veterinarian up and get advice without them having to see the animal. In this case the advice is surgery or euthanasia. Again, without even having seen the animal, based solely on what you’re told over the phone. I think I had three of those conversations just this week, except mine ended with, “You really need to bring them in for me to give you a proper assessment.”
CPR is done on a rat. I hate to say it, but even if it’s the most intelligent talking rat ever, I don’t see that happening, or working. An MRI is done on a tiger and then someone states you “can’t just operate on a tiger when you don’t know what the symptoms are”. You just did an MRI! I would hope that would help you! Then again, he’s right, after all you are just human physicians and maybe you shouldn’t be doing surgery on a tiger. No apparent anesthesia is done for the tiger, in part, it seems, so it can walk Dr. Dolittle through the surgery. Because this would be exactly how brain surgery on a person would be done. Previous sentence – sarcasm font. You might be getting used to that by now. It is stated, and I’m done with this movie after this, that “animals and people are basically the same”. Ummmm….not quite.
I do have one last story to share with you, though, that tangentially relates to this movie. We had a medical doctor who, while in an exam with his cat, wanted us to hire him to work at our clinic. Part of his “reasoning”, besides the fact that he assumed he could do our job, was that he “was tired of dealing with people”. Much laughter and wiping of tears out of eyes ensued. His cat was PU/PD and he declared that she had diabetes (which we were loath to tell him was the go-to diagnosis by almost any lay-client). He wanted to place a bet that if he were right, then we should hire him. Personally, I thought if he went back and actually got into a vet school and actually got a DVM degree, then we would consider it in a few years after he had some experience. Makes me wonder if we had told him how much we would pay him if he wouldn’t appreciate his current job more. The punch line to this was the cat didn’t have diabetes. It was in renal failure, so we weren‘t forced to hire him. I know. Renal failure isn’t funny. But in the context of over-inflated medical doctor egos it is.

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