Nothing warms the hearts of movie executives quite like potential box-office winners with concepts already in place. It's easier than starting from scratch. That's why remakes, sequels and rereleases often get green-lighted a lot more readily than anything too original.
The creators of "Dr. Dolittle" know that fact of Hollywood life all too well. Betty Thomas, director of this middling comedy about a physician who talks to animals, scored big with "The Brady Bunch Movie." The title character is played by Eddie Murphy, whose foundering career was revived with "The Nutty Professor" (and then somewhat blighted by that off-screen episode with a street-walking transsexual).
The remake of the rather weak 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison bumps the setting from 1850s England to present-day San Francisco, and the central characters from stuffy upper-crust WASP to contemporary urban African- American. Murphy, playing the straight man this time, is a successful doctor stressed out by concerns over an impending corporate merger, the usual struggles of daily family life and hassles created by his daughter's pet guinea pig.
The good doctor's troubles are trebled one day when he rediscovers his long-forgotten childhood talent of communicating with animals. A dog calls him a "bonehead" after being hit by Dolittle's sports utility vehicle. He abruptly leaves an important business meeting after being assaulted by nonhuman voices at a cafe. A weekend retreat is spoiled by an intruding owl and her friendly forest friends.
"Doctor Dolittle," for the first half hour or so, is a real-rib tickler. Murphy knows how to handle comic reaction well enough to generate laughs. Kids (like those at a screening) likely will giggle ceaselessly at the sarcastic remarks and fifth-grade bathroom humor voiced by various domesticated and wild animals. "You scared the crap out of me," one rodent remarks. "There it is."
Adults may have fun guessing the identities of the familiar voices behind the critters, including Norm Macdonald and Ellen DeGeneres as pet dogs, Chris Rock as a guinea pig, Julie Kavner and Garry Shandling as a feuding pigeon couple, and Albert Brooks as a sickly, suicidal circus tiger. Billy Bob Thornton even gets an uncredited voice cameo delivering a one-liner in the style of his "Sling Blade" killer: "I won't bite nobody again, um hmm," says a canine behind bars.
Various subplots ineffectively wind their way through the movie, too. Maya (Kyla Pratt), the younger of the two Dolittle daughters, learns it's OK to "be yourself," even if that means being as weird as her dad. The always regal Ossie Davis, wasted as Dolittle's father, helps his granddaughter with that broadly drawn lesson. There's an awkwardly delivered message, too, about the struggles of the individual entrepreneur against corporate greed. The filmmakers also felt obligated to keep their audience interested through a barrage of extraneous pop-culture references. Thus, we get a clip of talking-horse sitcom "Mr. Ed," the promotion tag line for "Aliens" and a reference to "Jurassic Park."
Still, a modern milieu, a supposedly hipper soundtrack (with Aaliyah, the Sugarhill Gang, Jody Watley and Louis Armstrong's version of "Talk to the Animals") and all the talking-animal special effects a $70 million budget buys can't make anything but mediocre mush out of this dunderheaded adaptation of Hugh Lofting's beloved children's stories.