Courtesy Photo
95 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, June 26, 1998
Directed by Betty Thomas

Starring Eddie Murphy, Oliver Platt, Ossie Davis, Kristen Wilson, Kyla Pratt, Raven-Symone, Jeffrey Tambor & Peter Boyle

Animal voices by Norm Macdonald, Albert Brooks, Chris Rock, Reni Santoni, John Leguizamo, Julie Kavner, Garry Shandling, Phil Proctor, Jenna Elfman, Gilbert Gotfried, & Jonathan Lipnicki

Murphy plays straight man to wise-cracking critters in loose remake

Short of its central character who talks to animals, Eddie Murphy's "Dr. Dolittle" has little in common with the Hugh Lofting books that inspired it or the saccharine Rex Harrison musical that preceded it.

Wholly modern in mood and humor, screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin used Lofting's novels merely as a framework, but it's a frame around which they have built one of the better children's movies this year.

While this "Dr. Dolittle" will never be a classic (this ain't no "Babe"), right now, in 1998, it's an often hilarious, of-the-moment revamp built around a concept that seems hard to screw up: Talking animals.

Murphy plays an over-worked physician who inexplicably regains a childhood ability to communicate with critters. A stray dog starts smarting off to him, then his daughter's guinea pig follows suit.

The word spreads in the animal community that this guy has the gift, and soon his San Francisco apartment is besieged by the cast of "Wild Kingdom" -- sheep, horses, owls, ducks, rats, pigeons, dogs, cats, an alcoholic monkey -- all seeking medical advice and generally wreaking comedic havoc.

At first, of course, he thinks he's bonkers -- as do his wife and his business partners, who have him committed. But before long the good doctor has accepted his fate, turning into quite the vertebrate philanthropist while trying to explain to his wife and kids that he really can talk to animals.

The plot is overly simplistic and involves Dolittle rediscovering his inner child and dashing the corporate takeover of his clinic, yadda, yadda, yadda. But all that is really just a foundation for some great laughs.

In "Dr. Dolittle," Eddie Murphy plays the straight man, for a change, to a parade of surprisingly well-written comedic critters. Saturday Night Live alumni Norm Macdonald and Chris Rock voice the smart-mouthed stray dog and meddling guinea pig, and while a little of these guys goes a long way in person, as voice talents they're a scream.

John Leguizamo lends his chords to a rat the doc has to resuscitate with (ew!) mouth-to-mouth. Gilbert Gottfried is a obsessive-compulsive puppy. Garry Shandling and Julie Kavner ("The Simpsons") play a pair of bickering pigeons. And in a voice-over that almost steals the film, Albert Brooks ("Mother") whimpers his way through the movie's best scenes as a suicidal circus tiger who threatens to leap to his demise from Coit Tower.

Never mind how he got up there. That's not the point. The point is, this is funny stuff.

Helmed by Betty Thomas ("The Brady Bunch Movie," "Private Parts"), a director making a name for herself with comedies that somehow excel in spite of their paper-thin concepts, "Dr. Dolittle" is the kind of movie that is best when you check your brain at the door. Otherwise you might wonder aloud, for instance, what a monkey dressed like a clown is doing in a farm scene. Let it go.

The picture is far from perfect, and the laughs do diminish considerably in the last half of the film, in favor of "I'm OK, you're OK" messages and unfortunately requisite tender moments (Dolittle saves a dying animal in a heartstrings surgery scene).

Nonetheless, this is a kiddie movie (I don't know why it's PG-13) that is far too much fun to leave to the kids.

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