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Dr. Dolittle


Friday June 26, 1998

     Animals move their lips a lot in "Dr. Dolittle," but they have nothing of interest to say. And neither does anyone else.
     Based on the Hugh Lofting stories about a man able to talk to all of God's creatures, "Dr. Dolittle" is a complete waste of time and potential. It so squanders the technology that makes owls, dogs and raccoons look as if they're conversing that it might as well be labeled the "Anti-Babe."
     Given that "Dolittle" was already filmed as a musical in 1967 (with Rex Harrison in the starring role), what the current producers had in mind, said one, was "bringing a contemporary and hip '90s spin to the material." In practice this apparently meant the wholesale insertion of a witless barrage of off-color bathroom humor.
     "Dolittle" begins with a burst of butt jokes, amplified later by unflattering shots of a woman's huge and blotchy posterior. Then there's the extended sequence of a thermometer getting stuck you know where, not to mention giving CPR to a dying rat and having pigeons defecate on unsuspecting bad guys. If this is supposed to be family entertainment, it's frightening to wonder exactly what kind of family it's intended for.
     Presiding over this menagerie is Eddie Murphy's Dr. John Dolittle, as warm and cuddly a husband and father as any TV sitcom could wish for. It's frankly depressing to see Murphy, who had moments of pure hilarity in "The Nutty Professor," recede into a role so bland that some of his co-stars--animal and human--get more laughs than he does.
     As a youngster, Dolittle had the power of talking to animals, but as he grew older he lost the gift. Now a successful San Francisco doctor with a beautiful wife (Kristen Wilson) and two fine daughters, he's even forgotten he had it.
     Dolittle and his two partners (Oliver Platt, Richard Schiff) are in the process of selling their practice to the all-purpose evil of the moment, an HMO fronted by a greedy type named Calloway (Peter Boyle).
     In the midst of these delicate negotiations, Dolittle grazes a dog named Lucky with his car and rediscovers his power. The animals, in turn, find out there's a doctor in the house who speaks their language, and suddenly every corner he turns is occupied by an ailing four-footed friend.
     It is one of the more misguided cornerstones of this feeble screenplay (by Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin) that each of these animals is a miniature Borscht Belt comic, cracking wise and making more questionable jokes about their individual sexual proclivities than most people will want to hear.
     Director Betty Thomas has gathered an impressive collection of voices, including Albert Brooks as an ailing tiger, Chris Rock as a manic guinea pig, John Leguizamo as a troublesome rat and Julie Kavner and Garry Shandling as an unhappily married pair of pigeons. It's theoretically amusing, but only up to a point, and that point arrives well before the movie comes to an end.
     The moral of "Dr. Dolittle," that being true to yourself is the only way to go, is unobjectionable, but it hardly makes up for the nonsense that surrounds it. "No animal was harmed in the making of this film," reads the usual American Humane Assn. disclaimer at the close, but nothing is said about the debilitating effect this film will have on anyone with the bad luck to wander into it unawares.

Dr. Dolittle, 1998. PG-13 for crude humor and language. A Davis Entertainment Co./Joseph M. Singer Entertainment production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Betty Thomas. Producers John Davis, Joseph M. Singer, David T. Friendly. Executive producers Sue Baden-Powell, Jenno Topping. Screenplay by Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin, based on the stories by Hugh Lofting. Editor Peter Teschner. Costumes Sharen Davis. Music Richard Gibbs. Production design William Elliott. Art director Greg Papalia. Set decorator K.C. Fox. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Eddie Murphy as Dr. John Dolittle. Ossie Davis as Archer Dolittle. Oliver Platt as Dr. Mark Weller. Peter Boyle as Calloway. Richard Schiff as Dr. Gene Reiss. Kristen Wilson as Lisa. Jeffrey Tambor as Dr. Fish.

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