Even more family-friendly than its immensely popular predecessor — and conspicuously less raunchy than the “Nutty Professor” comedies that also showcase its charismatic star –“Dr. Dolittle 2” has all the symptoms of a sure-fire smash hit. With Eddie Murphy once again in fine form as the San Francisco physician who can converse with animals, sequel abounds in funny business that auds of all ages can enjoy, and showcases impressive f/x wizardry that enhances the central gimmick of trans-species communication. The prognosis: An extended theatrical run, fortified by chronic repeat biz, followed by massive outbreaks of homevid rentals and sales.
Murphy again toplines as Dr. John Dolittle, an updated version of the character introduced in classic children’s stories by Hugh Lofting (which also inspired the 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison). In the 1998 “Dr. Dolittle,” which grossed $293 million worldwide, Murphy’s kindly but easily discombobulated medico learned to finally accept his long-suppressed gift for talking with animals. In the follow-up, Dr. Dolittle uses his talents to aid woodland creatures in their efforts to keep their forest from being destroyed by rapacious loggers.
To help the imperiled critters, the good doctor must delay plans for a European vacation with Lisa (Kristen Wilson), his lawyer wife, and their two daughters, Charisse (Raven-Symone) and Maya (Kyla Pratt). The timing couldn’t be worse: Charisse, already in the early stages of moody-teen rebellion, no longer is amused by her father’s antics, and claims to be embarrassed by his much-publicized adventures as adviser and interpreter for birds and beasts.
Even so, Dr. Dolittle can’t say no to a Godfatherly beaver (voiced by Richard C. Sarafian) who needs outside help to protect the other creatures in his forest turf. Thanks to his wife’s legal maneuvering, the doc obtains a temporary restraining order to stop logging exec Joseph Potter (Jeffrey Jones) from clear-cutting the forest. To permanently protect the woodland, however, Dr. Dolittle must sustain an endangered species by finding a mate for Ava (Lisa Kudrow), the last surviving Pacific Western bear in the forest.
Trouble is, there’s only one other Pacific Western bear to be found: Archie (Steve Zahn), a raised-in-captivity performing bear whose natural habitat is a sideshow stage. Archie likes the look of Eva, but he’s reluctant to end his showbiz career — he specializes in dancing and motorcycle riding — for the purpose of long-term mating. And he’s none too eager to pursue a lifestyle that would entail foraging for food and hibernating in caves. So Dr. Dolittle, reluctantly accompanied by his family, must temporarily move into a forest cabin to facilitate the mating process. Think of it as a kind of extended house call.
Much of “Dr. Dolittle 2” revolves around the doc’s therapeutic efforts to help Archie get in touch with his inner bear. As a result, Murphy plays — as he did in the previous “Dolittle” pic — a primarily reactive role, responding to the chatty wildlife around him. But Murphy doesn’t appear at all uncomfortable by being restrained by the demands of the part. Indeed, he’s ingratiating and extremely amusing, even as he serves as straight man to trained animals and seamlessly integrated animatronics. He knows precisely when to emphasize the fussiness of his character, when to be to comically excitable, and when to provide a pricelessly funny double take.
Working from a script by Larry Levin, co-writer of the ’98 “Dolittle,” director Steve Carr (“Next Friday”) maintains a suitably zippy pace and keeps the animal flatulence jokes to a bare minimum. (Unlike its slightly more scatological, PG-13-tagged predecessor, sequel rates a PG.) Wilson, reprising her perf as Lisa Dolittle, does little to smooth the brittle edge that characters such as hers — i.e., often-snippy, not-always-sympathetic spouses –usually display in pics such as this. Other two-legged supporting players are unremarkably competent.
Of course, every human onscreen, even Murphy, is repeatedly upstaged by animals digitally augmented by the Rhythm & Hues f/x team. Mouth movements and hand … errr, paw gestures are skillfully faked. But the perfectly cast vocal talents are what really make the illusion work.
Zahn brings a slightly goofy, gee-whiz quality to Archie (who’s played by an ursine thesp named Tank the Bear), while Sarafian scores big laughs as the God Beaver blithely dismisses the suggestion that he has underworld ties. (“I’m just a simple fisherman who’s blessed with many friends.”) Other standouts include Michael Rapaport as a tough-guy raccoon, Isaac Hayes as a sleepy-sounding possum and Kevin Pollak (who also plays the logging exec’s lawyer) as a crocodile who snaps at a TV nature-show host. Norm Macdonald makes a welcome return as the voice of Lucky, a sardonic dog who gets some of the best lines while providing running commentary.