Dr. Dolittle
directed by Betty Thomas
(20 Century Fox, 1998)

Few remakes have as little to do with their forebears as does Dr. Dolittle, the Eddie Murphy vehicle based on the 1967 Rex Harrison film based in turn on Hugh Lofting's venerable series of Dr. Dolittle books.

The very idea of replacing Rex Harrison with Eddie Murphy is as funny as anything that takes place on the screen in either film; and oddly enough, it works. It works, that is, if you're not looking for a line-by-line filmization of Lofting's novels, which first reached the screen in 1927 and got the big-budget musical treatment 40 years later.

The latest Dr. Dolittle is truly a film for the '90s. It's fast, it's hip, it's occasionally crude and it contains Hollywood's latest stock villain: the HMO.

Dr. John Dolittle (Murphy) is a successful M.D., so successful that he can afford to live in San Francisco. But little do his practice partners know that he has a deep, dark secret: When he was a child, he could talk to animals. Dolittle himself can't recall that, until he accidentally runs over a dog one night. The dog shuffles off unharmed, but as he does, he takes time to call Dolittle a "bonehead."

From then on, Dolittle's life is changed. He can no longer escape the voices of the animals who surround him: pigeons at an outdoor restaurant, a police horse, his daughter's guinea pig and the rats who rule the garbage cans near his office. The result is a number of funny scenarios, as Dolittle first flees from his unusual talent, then tries to hide it from family and friends. But the call of the child is hard to resist: Dolittle soon sees he can use his ability to communicate with animals to make their lives better, and that makes his better.

Adding to the fun is the bevy of stars who provide voices and personalities for the animals who alternately torment and delight Dolittle: Norm McDonald as Lucky, the dog; Albert Brooks as a suicidal tiger; Chris Rock as Rodney, the hormonal guinea pig with a song for every occasion; Garry Shandling as a male pigeon obsessed with robins' breasts; Ellen DeGeneres as the voice of Dolittle's childhood pet; and Paul Reubens as a raccoon who could pass for Peter Lorre on his worst day.

Not surprisingly, the animals get the best dialogue, much of which involves perceptive comments about people and their relationships with animals. Witness the response of a rat whose life Dolittle has just saved with CPR: "Gratitude? You want gratitude? Get a hamster."

I'm not sure whose idea it was to star Murphy -- the man who became famous for using all the words Lenny Bruce couldn't -- in films pitched to children, but it works. It would probably work better if half a dozen or so words had been changed to make them less offensive, but once they're out of the way, Dr. Dolittle offers the same message it's always offered: believe in yourself, be true to yourself and don't discount input from the oddest of sources; they just might be better than your own.

Director Betty Thomas has guided this latest Dolittle through lots of changes, not the least of which was cutting it from 167 minutes to 85. The math is irresistible. Half the film makes twice the movie.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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