The concept must have looked great on paper: remake and contemporize Hugh Lofting’s “Doctor Dolittle” (lavishly produced by Fox as a kid’s musical in 1967, starring Rex Harrison) with Eddie Murphy and state-of-the-art tech wizardry from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. But the resulting “Dr. Dolittle” is a letdown. Slim on story and rife with scatological jokes, the film may strike a chord with pre-teens but misses for an older crowd despite some nifty effects and broad humor. Costly venture will require considerable commercial muscle to recoup the investment, but theatrical biz appears to be no better than OK, with the film’s big payday down the line on video.
Thrusting the story into the present day regrettably robs the material of its storybook magic. The original doctor’s entertaining alchemy was drawn from his ability to talk to the animals. Growing up in San Francisco, the updated Dr. John Dolittle was exorcised of that gift as a child, when he began to adopt the social customs of a family pet. His unique ability suddenly returns when, as an adult, he strikes his head on his car’s windshield after swerving to avoid a stray dog in the road.
Dolittle is freaked out by his long-forgotten talent. And when his family and colleagues catch him conversing with dogs, guinea pigs, birds and the like, they strongly urge him to take the rest cure.
The dilemma for the noted surgeon is that once he gets used to this rapport, he rediscovers the sheer joy of the doctor-patient relationship. His new animal clients are more forthright about what ails them than his human patients, and the challenge of healing their pain is a tonic from the institutionalized-medicine rut that has overcome his clinic.
After milking some hilarious situations for most of the film’s running length, the Nat Mauldin-Larry Levin script settles into the core drama.
In a nutshell, it’s about coming to grips with what’s important to one’s personal fulfillment and recognizing that what others perceive as handicaps can indeed be gifts. A saccharine tone dominates the material late in the film — thankfully, only briefly.
Murphy is largely saddled with a reactive role, and periodically it seems that he’s playing to a blue screen where members of the menagerie will be optically inserted later. Nonetheless, he provides a much-needed emotional anchor to a yarn largely adrift on an uncharted narrative sea.
Murphy’s supporting human cast must limn one-dimensional roles, with Oliver Platt as a medical partner consumed with unbridled greed and Kristen Wilson cast as Dolittle’s earnestly concerned wife.
The real stars of the picture are the animals: the creature creations and the voice talent behind the furry friends. A dog named Lucky, voiced by Norm Macdonald, emerges as a deft physical ham, and the comic’s delivery turns an examination at a veterinary hospital involving a misplaced thermometer a laugh riot.
Also lending personality to the animals are Albert Brooks as a depressed tiger and Reni Santoni and John Leguizamo as permanently feuding rats. Still, one longs for such fantastical creatures as the giant pink snail and the enchanting two-headed Push-Me-Pull-You of the books and earlier film version.
To the production’s and director Betty Thomas’ credit, there’s a general seamlessness in the manner the humans, critters and inventions interact.
“Dr. Dolittle” is a smoothly crafted enterprise whose technical skill makes the glaring shortcomings of the story all the more disappointing.