I didn't like the original Dr. Dolittle very much, and by "original" I'm referring to the 1998 Eddie Murphy comedy, not the 1967 Rex Harrison musical. The concept was okay: Murphy as a doctor who, against his will, talks to the animals. But the execution was weak, the script boiling down to fat jokes, butt jokes and fat-butt jokes. "Why Murphy, who's one of the most talented comedians to come along in years, would want to get mixed up in this project is beyond me," I wrote at the time. Well, it turns out to have been over $290 million beyond me. Dr. Dolittle was a huge hit, and Murphy, with The Nutty Professor already under his belt, was suddenly the Dean Jones or Fred MacMurray of our time. What was next, Son of Flubber?
Yes, in a manner of speaking. Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and now Dr. Dolittle 2 have taken so much of the bite out of Murphy's comedy that he appears to be down to the gums. And yet, I must say, the Dolittle sequel is at least mildly entertaining all the way through, and often better than that. This time, the good doctor fully accepts his ability to communicate with other species; it's his family, particularly his teenage daughter, who wish he would find a little more time for his own kind. Nevertheless, he gets himself all wrapped up in an attempt to save a Northern California forest that's about to be clear-cut by a lumber company. And it all starts when a raccoon who sounds like some guy named Vito makes him an offer he can't refuse.
The whole thing's basically one Gary Larson joke after another, but they're better jokes this time, and director Steve Carr paces the movie beautifully. Plus, the f/x software is now to the point where the filmmakers can get these animals ' some of them real, some not, most a mongrelized mix of the two ' to do virtually anything they want them to. Still, it's the vocal performances that put it all over. And it's Steve Zahn who steals the show as Archie, a circus bear reintroduced to the wild. The thing is, Archie's gotten rather used to the cushy life of a performer; as he tells Dolittle early on, "I don't do state forests." Which is why, when he gets released into one, the first thing he does is break into a rousing, albeit off-key, rendition of "I Will Survive."
A cross between Gentle Ben and the Cowardly Lion, Archie's not exactly an alpha male, and Dolittle's job is to get another species-endangered bear, Ava, to hook up with him. Lisa Kudrow is pleasantly amusing as the hard-to-get Ava, and Murphy seems content to play both matchmaker and straight man. He's in his Cliff Huxtable mode, with the serviceable clothes and the wire rims. The script cooks up a subplotline involving Dolittle's daughter's boyfriend, played by Lil' Zane, and when the young rapper referred to Murphy as "Pops," I thought I'd fall out of my chair. Who would have thought, 20 years ago, that Eddie Murphy would wind up making Sierra Club comedies, Disney-ish movies that answer the age-old question, Does a bear spritz in the woods?