Dr. Dolittle

Jul 1, 1998 at 12:00 am

Whatever happened to Eddie Murphy? Once, not so long ago, the star enjoyed the luxury of being able to morph into sex symbol or funny man whenever the appropriate role presented itself. Now, in his career's later stages, he seems more than happy to latch onto whichever old movie concept the studios choose to dispense. And Dr. Dolittle isn't even very funny.

After an embarrassing episode as a kid, John Dolittle (Murphy) is shamed by his dad (Ossie Davis) and a crazy preacher to ignore his unusual talents and stop talking to animals. Twenty years later, John is a respected surgeon with an amusingly Cosbyesque, upper- middle-class family and a beautiful wife. (Ironically, Raven Symone, one of the child actresses from "The Cosby Show", plays his daughter.) This reverie is jostled one day when Dolittle, while in an outdoor meeting with a group of doctors, responds to some comments and realizes that the birds and chipmunks are talking to him.

That's just the beginning, though, as John reluctantly makes a friend of a dog named Lucky and, trying to bear with matters, has more surreal episodes with outdoor animals. Although Dolittle eventually decides that he isn't crazy, his good-hearted zealotry -- which hits an alarming crescendo with a sick rat -- doesn't sit too well with the anthropocentric humans around him. We have a nutcase, they decide.

With Dr. Dolittle, we have a straight pacifier for the family market, even if the humor ranges from the corny to unbelievably gross. Are Eddie's producers taking their cues from the rapper filmmakers? If so, maybe we can expect some startling variants in kiddie humor from studios in the future. Perhaps The Hobbitt's Club or Cinderella's Hookup will appear next with Murphy's name at the top of the marquee. At least Dolittle closes with a sweet, if banal coda, for old times' sake.

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