Eddie Murphy talking to animals now you know that's got to be funny.
And it is. So long as the animals are on screen, "Doctor Dolittle" is a riot, even if the usually irrepressible Murray ends up playing second fiddle to a bunch of critters. Unfortunately, screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin and director Betty Thomas aren't satisfied with making us laugh; they want to teach us a lesson. And it's when the film starts preachifying that things start to drag.
Based on the children's books of Hugh Lofting, this "Doctor Dolittle" bears only passing resemblance -- thankfully -- to the lumbering 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison and Anthony Newley. John Dolittle (Murphy) is an M.D. He's got a wife (Kristen Wilson), two darling kids, a practice he's about to sell to an HMO (thereby gaining him lots of money and costing him his soul) and an aversion to animals.
Why the aversion? Well, John doesn't remember, but as a child, he could speak to animals, especially his dog. Which was fine, until he took his dog's advice and decided the best way to introduce himself to his new principal was to smell his butt (the film is rife with butt jokes and scatological humor, which helps explain the PG-13 rating). That got him into so much trouble that he stopped conversing with nonhumans, to the point of forgetting he even could.
Then, one day, a bop on the head brings the ability back (hey, this is the movies, not science), and chaos ensues.
Chaos, in this case, is a bunch of animals whose alter-egos are some of the most distinctive voices in comedy, most notably Norm MacDonald as a dog, Albert Brooks as a tiger and Chris Rock as a hyperactive guinea pig (is there any other kind?). Other voices are supplied by a roster that includes Ellen DeGeneres, Jenna Elfman, Garry Shandling, Julie Kavner and John Leguizamo.
Murphy, realizing he's strictly a second banana here, wisely lets the animals hog (yes, there's even a pig) the spotlight, and as long as they're cracking wise, "Doctor Dolittle" delivers the laughs pretty much nonstop. Although the special effects that keep the animals' lips moving aren't up to the standards of "Babe," you'll often be laughing too hard to notice.
But then the movie screeches to a halt for a subplot involving Dolittle's shy young daughter, Maya (a delightful turn by 11-year-old Kyla Pratt), and addressing whether people should use the gifts God gives them or try to conform themselves to what society expects.
It's a good question and a potentially valuable lesson, but one that's awkwardly forced onto this film. "Doctor Dolittle" should have been satisfied to make you laugh and not determined to make you learn.
Starring Eddie Murphy
Directed by Betty Thomas
Released by 20th Century Fox
Running time: 85 minutes
Rated PG-13 (crude humor and language)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 6/26/98