With the number of domesticated pets in the U.S. alone numbering more than one hundred million, it's no surprise that people love movies about animals. As a proud owner of a cat that holds the all-time record for most meows over any given recorded period (don't even try contesting that fact), I've often wondered what she's really saying (other than, "If only our roles were reversed and you had to eat the same slop day in and day out).
That thought has obviously also crossed various filmmakers' minds through the years, and thus the existence of many talking animal movies and shows, including "Babe," "Mr. Ed," "Francis (The Talking Mule)," and of course, the original "Dr. Dolittle."
Released in 1967, that G-rated film, which was based on the beloved "Doctor Dolittle Stories" by Hugh Lofting, starred Rex Harrison in the title role and recorded an amazing nine Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and it won two -- for Best Song and Best Special Effects). With the recent box office and critical success of "Babe" and the arrival of ever increasingly better special effects, it's not at all surprising that this "talk to the animals" story has been resurrected.
As directed by Betty Thomas ("Private Parts," "The Brady Bunch Movie") and written by screenwriters Nat Mauldin ("The Preacher's Wife") and Larry Levin (a TV writer with credits on "Seinfeld," among other shows), this update features some funny material when the animals are on screen, but mostly falls flat when they're not.
Eddie Murphy ("The Nutty Professor," "Trading Places") fills Harrison's shoes, but despite being a gifted and quite funny comedic actor, here he isn't given much to do other than react to all of the animal kingdom madness surrounding him. While he generates a few laughs here and there and delivers an enjoyable performance, you can't help but feel that his presence and comic potential are somewhat wasted in this mostly reactive, instead of proactive role.
The rest of the human performances, including ones from Oliver Platt ("Bulworth") and Ossie Davis ("Get On The Bus"), are all one-dimensional, throw away roles that easily could have been played by anyone and are used just as filler, instead of well-written comic potential.
The real stars, of course, are the animals, and more importantly, the talented voices behind them. Featuring okay, but not outstanding computer generated visual effects (and some animatronics from Jim Henson's Creature Shop) that enable the critters to "talk" (still coming a long way from the old peanut butter days of "Mr. Ed" -- a point actually discussed in this film), the clever lines coming from their mouths are what make the movie funny.
While the comedic potential from the main plot line (a doctor is shocked to discover he can converse with animals) wears thin rather quickly, and the remaining subplots (the doc's partners worry that they'll lose their buyer) completely strike out, the funny dialogue delivered by the animals keeps things lively and humorous.
Perfectly matching the vocal talents and their publicly perceived characteristics and idiosyncrasies to the animals they play, Thomas and her crew get high marks for their brilliant casting and cleverly written dialogue. Albert Brooks ("Mother") gets to play the nervous and pacing tiger, Norm MacDonald ("Dirty Work") voices the wisecracking but scruffy mutt, and Gary Shandling (HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show") plays the self-doubting and insecure pigeon. The best efforts, however, come from a pair of rats (one voiced by John Leguizamo) and the family's pet guinea pig that's voiced by a hyped up Chris Rock (a perfect voice for a scampering, fast chewing little critter).
It's just too bad that the filmmakers didn't pay as much attention to the rest of the script. The moments with those animal characters and others are often quite funny, but they can't stay on the screen all of the time. Other than some early humorous material (with Dolittle as a child and some later family moments), the movie falls flat when the animals are absent. In addition, while the sugary sweet message of rediscovering oneself and doing what makes you feel happy isn't horribly overbearing, that fact that it dominates the picture's second half and dampens the comedy is clearly obvious by the lack of audience laughter, especially when compared to the earlier material.
Not terrible, but certainly not as good as I imagined it would be, this film should entertain audiences looking for a more racy version of "Babe" (if such an audience actually exists). I don't know how my cat would rate the movie (I'm sure she's trying to tell me right now in cat talk), but we give the occasionally funny "Dr. Dolittle" just a 5 out of 10.