Having recently stolen Shrek as a talking donkey, Eddie Murphy is back in the multiplexes again this summer, this time as a man who can, presumably, talk to donkeys. In the course of Dr. Dolittle 2, in which he plays a veterinarian who can, you know, Talk To The Animals, Murphy yaks it up with creatures ranging from beavers to raccoons to weasels and works as an advocate trying to save their woodland home. Who'd've thought, back in the early '80s, that it would come to this -- that, so to speak, Axel Foley would take a desk job, that Reggie Hammond would go straight, that Eddie Murphy would learn the joys of playing square?
Actually, he's been doing it for a while. It's just under 20 years ago that Murphy made his screen debut in the smash 48HRS., and he's been, despite a few flops, an undisputed movie star ever since. But the self-delighted smarty-pants act was so funny in his first few films because he was kid. It didn't wear well as he got older -- there are movies from the late '80s, like Harlem Nights or Beverly Hills Cop II or his concert movie Raw, in which he comes off smarmy and unlikable, almost creepy. Starting with Coming to America in 1988, however, and continuing throughout the '90s, Murphy began to gradually fashion a more mature style for himself. And it probably has been the square, sweet, unthreatening side of Murphy's screen persona that has allowed him to survive as a big name in movies.
The impression one gets from the long view of Murphy's career is of a man working, largely, by himself. He doesn't seem to have much feel for romance, and his male sidekicks, like Judge Reinhold and Arsenio Hall, seem more tolerated than enjoyed. Like Peter Sellers, Murphy is self-involved as a performer, in a not altogether negative way.
He's pretty much the whole show in Dr. Dolittle 2, as well. Except in a scene or two with fast-blooming ex-Cosby kid Raven-Symoné, who plays his daughter, Murphy barely acknowledges the other Homo sapiens onscreen with him -- Kristen Wilson, who plays his wife, is little more than an attractive piece of set dressing. It's his animal co-stars, particularly a couple of quite splendid bears for whom he's trying to play matchmaker, that bring him to life. Maybe he wants to take on the challenge of scene-stealers at this level, to see if he can prove an exception to the old show-biz maxim about working with animals.
Once Murphy's considerable resourcefulness, and the appeal of his quadrupedal co-stars, have been noted, there's little to be said either for good or ill about Dr. Dolittle 2, a sequel to the 1998 reworking of the ponderous 1967 movie musical Doctor Dolittle. It's a modest family comedy, probably fun for kids, and reasonably cute, or at least not too insufferable, for most of the grown-ups who'll take them.
The plot -- Murphy's trying to get the bears together so that a chunk of Northern California forest will be spared from logging -- is feeble in the extreme, but the film doesn't take it very seriously anyway. The onscreen villains (Jeffrey Jones and Kevin Pollak) are thrown away, but the voice-over actors, including Steve Zahn and Lisa Kudrow as the bears, Isaac Hayes as a possum, Andy Dick as a weasel and the deadpan madman Norm Macdonald, once again, as the family dog, add additional witty texture.
In closing, a couple of pedantries may be in order: In Dr. Dolittle 2, a possum is referred to as a rodent -- it's a marsupial. A beaver, which is indeed a rodent, calls itself a "fisherman" -- beavers are vegetarian. And a chameleon, an African lizard, is here given a Latino accent. Considering the degree of scientific erudition that kids pick up, you'd think that the makers of a film like this would mind their zoological P's and Q's.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.