Afterthought Special

The 1967 screen musical Doctor Dolittle, which starred Rex Harrison, was a commercial disaster for its studio, 20th Century Fox. The new nonmusical Fox version, starring Eddie Murphy, isn't in the same overblown category as the original film -- its disasters are more mundane. It's a kiddie comedy that really shouldn't be on the big screen at all; it has all the creative range of an ABC Afterschool Special.

After a film such as Babe, which really put us into a world of talking animals, you would think the ante had been upped for this sort of thing. But the people behind the new Dr. Dolittle haven't imaginatively embraced their material -- to put it mildly. It's just a star vehicle for Murphy, and the worst part is that Murphy acts as if he doesn't even like animals.

In this new contempo-setting reworking of Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle stories, Murphy is a thriving physician and family man who is on the verge of selling the practice he shares with two other doctors, played by Oliver Platt and Richard Schiff, to a voracious HMO. He's about to become very rich, but then he mysteriously experiences once again a gift he had as a child: He can talk to animals, and they talk back to him. Freaked out at first, he denies what is happening -- he's even put away for a while in a mental ward -- but then he accepts his powers. He learns to love his gift.

Because the film begins with a prologue in which we see John Dolittle the little boy relishing his talk-to-the-animals prowess, it doesn't make much sense to see the adult Dolittle in such a freaked-out tizzy for much of the movie. Wouldn't he be overjoyed instead?

The answer is simple: There would not be much of a story if he acted otherwise. There isn't much of a story anyway. The script by Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin is a dead weight concoction that targets the usual villains, with big, bad HMOs at the top of the list. Singled out, too, are the health care professionals, such as Dolittle's shrink, who refuse to recognize what a wonder it is to commune with critters.

The wonderment would be much improved if the critters had better dialogue. As it is, we're stuck most of the time watching computer-animated talking rats and pigeons and horses and guinea pigs and what-all and then trying to figure out who is voicing them. A few, like Chris Rock, Garry Shandling, and Albert Brooks, are easy; others, like Ellen DeGeneres and Reni Santoni, aren't. But there's a who-cares quality to the whole slapdash enterprise.

Even kids -- or, perhaps, especially kids -- will be disappointed. This is, after all, a movie in which even the gross-out jokes are tired. Few things are more depressing than a fart joke that misfires. Betty Thomas, who directed, has done some funny, sharp work in the past, including the HBO film The Late Shift and The Brady Bunch Movie. I cared less for Private Parts, which she also helmed -- it tenderized Howard Stern -- but it was far from the disgrace everyone anticipated. She has a pokey screwball style that doesn't really connect to the imaginative children's universe of the Dolittle stories.

The script gives her nothing to fall back on. And Murphy doesn't help matters. After years of walking through his movies, he came through in 1996 with a bravura comic performance in The Nutty Professor. I was hoping lightning would strike twice. But maybe what made The Nutty Professor work for Murphy was the splitting of himself into the sad-jolly fat man and the hyperabrasive star. One persona bought off the other. But in Dr. Dolittle he's blandly nice throughout; there's no abrasion to work against. Worse, we're meant to regard Dolittle as a man who must find his own inner truth by talking to the animals. This is really a cheat. It turns a deeply charming conceit into a touchy-feely exercise. We're supposed to believe that Dolittle, by shunning all that HMO loot and expanding his practice to include animals, is making a virtuous stand against the moneygrubbers. "Be who you are, love who you are," the animals tell him, and he complies.

Didn't it occur to the filmmakers that a doctor who can talk to animals would clean up? If Dolittle hung up his shingle in Beverly Hills, he'd soon buy out Microsoft. Maybe that'll be in the sequel.

Dr. Dolittle.
Directed by Betty Thomas. Written by Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin. Starring Eddie Murphy, Oliver Platt, Kristen Wilson, and Kyla Pratt.

 
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