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Weekly Alibi What's in a Name?

By Devin D. O'Leary

JULY 6, 1998:  I would really like to have been in on the planning sessions that went into the making of this movie. Honestly. Because I have no freaking idea what the thought process could have involved. First of all, some genius studio exec (probably under the age of 25) had to come up with the brilliant idea to remake the 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle. Never mind the fact that that particular film was a bomb--one of the more infamous and costly failures in Hollywood history. Like I said, the exec (who we'll now call "Skip") probably wasn't even born when the thing came out, so we can forgive him. Eventually, though, some grand high muckety-muck actually had to greenlight the project and toss in his two cents' worth. That meeting probably went something like this: "Doctor Dolittle? ... Brilliant idea, Skip. You know who would be the perfect replacement for Rex Harrison? Eddie Murphy. Heck, get his agent on the phone. It's a done deal!" The progress of logic in this little scenario escapes me. The resulting film (cleverly titled Dr. Dolittle to segregate it from the original) is a testament to illogical choices, bad decisions and lazy filmmaking.

That Eddie Murphy agreed to star in Dr. Dolittle is no surprise. The remake of The Nutty Professor was a similar gamble, and he pulled that off with career-reviving élan. I'm sure Murphy thought, "Yeah. Talking animals, that could be funny." The big difference is that The Nutty Professor actually gave Murphy something to do. The goofy special effects, frantic physical comedy and clever dual role allowed Murphy to ham it up to the hilt. In Dr. Dolittle, Murphy plays the titular physician--a straight-laced, conservatively dressed family man with a successful practice. Is this the same brash Eddie Murphy who mugged it up as the street smart Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop? Casting Murphy as the straight man is the deadliest career turn since Steve Martin gave up being funny to play the dad in a string of dull Disney-produced comedies. Murphy's co-stars (such as the pretty but colorless Kristen Wilson as his wife) were apparently ordered not to distract audiences, as their presence is scarcely felt.

All the jokes, rather expectedly, fall to Murphy's animal co-stars. The producers have gathered a surprisingly big cross-section of Hollywood talent to dub animal voices. Jenna Elfman, Ellen DeGeneres, Norm MacDonald, Albert Brooks and Garry Shandling are just a few of the names. Unfortunately, it seems that the stars were forced to record their parts without any actual script to work off of. How else can you explain the fact that none of them actually says anything funny? The trailers for Dr. Dolittle feature some amusing cut-ups from loudmouthed Chris Rock as a loudmouthed Guinea pig. Unfortunately, Rock gets one or two funny lines and spends the rest of the film trying to force some semblance of humor into his pointless "Hey. Hi there. Woo-hoo. I'm a talking Guinea pig" dialogue. Gilbert Gottfried, I must admit, is rather appropriate as an obsessive-compulsive dog. But why even bother to drag in Paul Reubens as a raccoon if all he's going to say is, "Hey, Doc, you got any tuna?" Granted, the gimmick of talking animals might have been enough to sustain a film if we hadn't already seen it done (10 times better) in Babe. The cheap animation used here to create talking tigers and gibbering gibbons looks exactly like cheap animation.

Director Betty Thomas, who started sliding down a smutty slope with her last film, Howard Stern's Private Parts, keeps up the vulgar yocks. There are only about five actual jokes in the entire film--all of which involve butts. Even the 10 year olds in the audience seemed a little embarrassed to be laughing. A dog loses a rectal thermometer you know where; a rat is incapacitated with severe flatulence; some sheep complain, "Our butts hurt!" These are the jokes, folks.

Apparently our boy Skip and his muckety-muck partner felt that their idea to remake Dr. Dolittle was so genius that the film didn't even need a script. Dolittle contains the merest hint of a plot (at first Dolittle doesn't want to help the animals, but then he does). For some odd reason there's a subplot about Dolittle's practice being taken over by an HMO. Every 10 minutes or so, this already unfunny film stops to have a discussion about the merits of HMOs (probably the least amusing topic on the planet). Peter Boyle (another funny actor ordered to act completely unfunny) stumbles in occasionally, threatening to become the film's bad guy, but never coming through on the promise.

Kids, butt-joke aficionados and adults with low expectations will undoubtedly milk a chuckle or two out of Dr. Dolittle. Even so, there's no getting around the fact that it's a poorly constructed, corporate-assembled junkpile. You're likely to get more entertainment out of the latest Taco Bell chihuahua commercial. Nice work, Skip!

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