Doctor Dolittle. Dir. Betty Thomas. 20th-Century Fox. 1998.

Representation of animals in Betty Thomas’s Doctor Dolittle

The animal presence in Doctor Dolittle (1998) is extremely intriguing, using impressive CGI and a vast spectrum of species to depict a humanistic side to animals that was, until then, uncommon in film. Eddie Murphy’s character, John Dolittle, provides audiences with an identity crisis: family man vs lucrative businessman. His gift of communicating with animals governs the plot and leads to the inevitable moral and the resolution to this crisis: that happiness and family are more important than money and material goods. His transformation to animal-loving philanthropist leads him to meet a plethora of animals, all with their own highly developed identities and whose influence unites his somewhat disconnected family. The animals are given the most influential position in the film: even the narrator is a dog! Dolittle’s gift initially lands him in a mental institution, but this family film works hard to prove that, as Eddie Murphy professes as the credits start to roll: “It’s not a big thing; we’re all basically the same”.

Generic Features

As a family film Doctor Dolittle effectively brings in aspects of this genre. Some of the elements at play are:

Slapstick comedy and often toilet humour for children, coupled with subtle sexual references that can be easily interpreted by adults whilst not being offensive to children.

Discussions of right and wrong. An important comedic moment that teaches the film’s moral of family importance over money is enforced using slapstick to punish the ‘baddie’ characters in the film. (See photograph below).

The moral transformation of the human characters that celebrates the family unit. The ending transforms the scepticism of onlookers and unites the Dolittle family, as well as the animals with the ‘moral’ characters.

In Heather Addison’s text in Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays, Addison comments that ‘Family films emphasize the importance of social integration… the expectation of children is that they become productive, law-abiding citizens’. This is something achieved by all the Dolittle family: adults, grandparents and animals alike.

Animal Presence

It is clear that, other than the Dolittle family themselves, animals are the most important element of the film. However, it takes the duration of the film for animals to become equal to humans. We are given hints throughout of their significance: a dog narrator, the importance placed on the naming of animals and the CGI allowing the animals to appear complete in their functioning and communication. Dolittle’s relationships with the animals are much more cohesive and friendly than with most humans allowing the animals’ characters to have several dimensions. As a result they are able to govern the moral outcome of the plot.

The animals’ personalities are extremely complex. They have names, accents, mannerisms and often stereotypical attributes: rats are dirty, farting creatures; owls are wise, calming and rational. The humans are not so developed in their identities, several of them suffering with their own identity crisis: Dolittle’s daughter begins the film claiming she has changed her name. This allows the audience to gage the animals’ identities as characters by their accents and behaviour, as opposed to just acknowledging them for their species. The end of the film blurs the boundaries between humanity and animality, dividing everyone into personalities of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This is particularly emphasised in the fact that the narrator turns out to be a dog as animals are literally telling the audience what is right and wrong. Family films with animals would ordinarily use a human character to narrate the animal behaviour as they cannot themselves. This film allows the discussion to be presented by the animals.

Doctor Dolittle (1998) Directed by Betty Thomas, USA: Fox.

The CGI in the film adds to this blurring and allows the animals the agency to speak. The effects are pretty impressive for a film made in 1998 and there is a certain acknowledgement to this advancement in one scene. Dolittle is watching TV in the mental institution where he is sent after being diagnosed as ‘crazy’ for speaking to animals. He and two other patients are watching an episode of Mr. Ed, a TV show made in the Late 50s to Early 60s, in which Clint Eastwood interacts with a horse. In the film, Dolittle and the patients discuss how it is peanut butter making the horse move its lips (see photograph). Here, Doctor Dolittle acknowledges the presence of animals in other productions but isolates itself as one in which the animals are characters, as opposed to spectacles. They are given identities, emotion and the ability to physically speak, making the boundaries between human and animal further distorted.

Initially the film discriminates heavily between humans and animals, Dolittle’s daughter even having to remind him that her guinea pig “didn’t die, his name is Rodney and he’s in my room”. However, by the end the animals’ human-like behaviours (dogs using toilets, monkeys drinking alcohol, etc.) and the morality of their actions dissolves any issue of human vs animal and allow each to just become characters. Murphy’s closing line “it’s no big thing; we’re all basically the same” is the statement this film reinforces by allowing the animals to govern the morality of the plot. By presenting both animals and humans in need of help, be it medical or emotional, the film takes away this concrete divide between human and animal that so many other films magnify. Instead, it discriminates between right and wrong. The family film genre encourages the moral path and in this film that involves loving everyone, including animals, as family and important members of society. The moment Dolittle’s own father admits he was wrong for rejecting his son’s gift: “sometimes [daddies need] to change”, it confirms that animals are providing this cohesion and that by accepting the importance of animals the family can accept each other.

Whilst the boundary between human and animal is distorted in this film it does not ignore important ethical issues of both human and animal cruelty. The tiger in the film is found in a cage belonging to a circus and after helping the animal Murphy says: “We’re going to have you back in the centre ring in no time”. This is complicated as it seems to represent a hierarchical nature of humans over animals. However, as the film strives to blur this it is important to note that humans are also presented as restricted in a similar way, showing people locked in asylums and children forced to go to camp. This further unites all species, breaking down the boundaries between them rather than reinforcing hierarchy.

Interesting animal focus

An important distinguishing factor in this film is the nature of animal communication. Yes, Doctor Dolittle can speak to animals, but are they speaking to him? This issue is one discussed in a review by Charles Taylor on, in which he says:, ‘He’s the man who discovers animals talk to him, which makes his life crazy’. Whereas many films, Born Free for example, present humans dominantly invading animal territory, this films shows the opposite. The animals seek out Dolittle and engage with him. They are the power behind the plot and the humans follow their lead. The DVD sleeve reiterates this, displaying Dolittle listening to the animals, not speaking to them.

The animals morally navigate the humans, interacting positively with ‘good’ characters (e.g. Dolittle’s youngest daughter Mia who has a similar affiliation with animals as her father) and rejecting the ‘bad’ characters. They bring together the morally correct and separate them for the corrupt. Dolittle’s medical company are set to sign a contract with a rich businessman, the start of the film presenting this “eye-wateringly large amount of money”, but the end rejects it in favour of family and the ‘right path’. It is the animals that determine the right from the wrong and the money-hungry characters are soon whittled out. They make the family film effective, the end scene showing the audience that the family unit is more important than material possessions, and animals are a key principle to the makings of a strong family.

Comparing Doctor Dolittle

Doctor Dolittle (1998) Directed by Betty Thomas, USA: Fox.

The comedy Ace Ventura portrays animals in a similar way to Doctor Dolittle in that they are considerably more important to the plot than humans. Both Dolittle and Ventura have an affinity with animals that other characters don’t understand and consider ‘mad’. Their relationships with animals are cohesive and positive but both initially have problems forming as strong relationships with humans. When they do achieve positive interaction with humans this is a result of their link to animals (Ventura finds love after having animalistic sex with the character, Melissa, to the song ‘In the Jungle’).

Another aspect of these characters’ link with animals is their profession: Dolittle becomes a doctor that treats animals and not a vet, and Ventura is a ‘pet detective’. They both favour animals in their work and their strong bonds with them are reiterated in the way they strive to help animals. Both of them contrast other members of their professions as the films show these other characters’ lack of interest in animals. In Dolittle’s case we meet a vet who watches an animal die and has no remorse whatsoever, stating that “my patients can’t tell me where it hurts”. Obviously, Dolittle can, hence the film’s naming of him as ‘Doctor’ instead of ‘vet’ – the distinction between animal and human to him, and to Ventura, is irrelevant.


Doctor Dolittle (1998) Directed by Betty Thomas, USA: Fox.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) Directed by Tom Shadyac, USA: Morgan Creek Productions.
Mr Ed (1958-1966) Created by Walter Brooks, USA: Filmways Television.

Further reading and reviews:

Heather Addison, Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays, edited by Wheeler W. Dixon, (State University of New York Press: 2000).
Noel Brown, The Hollywood Family Film: a History from Shirtley Temple to Harry Potter, (London: 2012) Source: Literature Online, Accessed on 26/03/13, available at ‘ es_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:rec:abell:R04756830’

‘Murphy himself is rather dull in the straight man role, and the jokes are pretty coarse for a family film. But it’s certainly better than the lacklustre sequel, which finds Eddie playing second fiddle to a performing bear.’

‘There wasn’t much sophistication to bits like the antics of a monkey that was hooked on the sauce or a flock of sheep announcing “Ouh-hr-hr-hr butts hurrrt,” but the good-natured silliness of it all kept me laughing.’

‘Not surprisingly, Thomas’s anthropomorphic comedy is as far from Hugh Lofting’s sing-song original as it’s possible to get. The thin storyline is a sideshow to some of the most realistic animatronic and computer effects to date.’

‘He’s the man who discovers that the animals talk to him, which makes his life crazy.’