Rated PG-13, 85 min. Directed by Betty Thomas. Starring Eddie Murphy, Ossie Davis, Oliver Platt, Kristen Wilson, Raven-Symoné, Kyla Pratt, Richard Schiff, Peter Boyle, Jeffrey Tambor.
Charm offensive or offensive charm? It's getting harder to make the call as Hollywood continues its strategy -- exemplified by movies like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, Billy Madison, Half-Baked, and the recent output of the Farrelly Brothers (Kingpin, Dumb & Dumber) -- of compensating for the dearth of good comedy writing with sheer dorky affability. Bristling with enough fart jokes, crass sexual innuendo, and low-grade profanity to make Rex Harrison (star of the original 1967 Dolittle) blanch, this PG-13 remake epitomizes the trend perfectly. With a middle-school class clown's lowbrow cunning, Dr. Dolittle's creators have zeroed right in on the key element of successful audience ingratiation, the benign and endearing lead character. Murphy, who owes his durable appeal to his flair for playing it both naughty and nice, fits the bill perfectly. His Dr. John Dolittle is a classical comic straight-man, a genial, unflappable traditional family guy à la Hugh Beaumont, who suppressed in childhood the only exceptional trait he ever had: the ability to talk with animals. When a knock on the head suddenly restores this long-lost ability, Dolittle's veneer of Cleaverish sangfroid shatters wide open. Suddenly, the air rings with the din of kvetching pigeons, drawling hound dogs, street-punk rats, and wisecracking guinea pigs (voiced hilariously by the likes of Chris Rock, Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, John Leguizamo, and Gary Shandling). To Dolittle's horror, the ability to walk with, talk with, grunt and squeak and squawk with these lower life forms draws him inexorably into their world and away from his carefully cultivated life as an upwardly mobile surgeon. Dolittle's humor, as I've noted, is hardly Wildean, even by comparison with the fairly lackluster '67 original, and will probably have no appeal at all to fans of the sweetly whimsical children's stories by Hugh Lofting. And yet, given that plentiful witnesses saw me sniggering my way through the preview screening, the critical high-horse stance is not an option. With an irresistible blend of disarming silliness, adorable critters, inspired gags (including allusions to movies like The Exorcist and Sling Blade), and the sheer personal appeal of Murphy and Symoné (as Dolittle's maladjusted younger daughter), there's no denying Dr. Dolittle's bullseye connection with the lowest common denominator. Hedged praise? Absolutely. One wishes -- fervently -- for a dose of the intelligent, genuinely witty kid-targeted comedy writing delivered by Terry Gilliam in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or Ron Clements and Ted Elliott in Aladdin. But at the risk of serving as an enabler for Hollywood's dysfunctional tendencies, I have to say that, given a choice between the puerile but essentially innocent whimsy of Dr. Dolittle and the dimwitted nastiness of, say, Dirty Work, parents should be grateful for the Eddie Murphys and Jim Carreys of the world for at least providing a kinder, gentler option.
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