Film Reviews

Do Little Indeed

Having recently stolen Shrek as a talking donkey, Eddie Murphy is back in the multiplexes again, 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 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 would have thought, back in the early '80s, that it would come to this -- that Axel Foley (so to speak) 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. Less than 20 years ago Murphy made his screen debut in the smash hit 48 Hrs., and he's been an undisputed movie star ever since, despite a few flops. But the self-delighted smarty-pants act was so funny in his first few films because he was a kid. It didn't wear well as he got older; there are movies from the late '80s, such as 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 through the '90s, Murphy gradually began to fashion a more mature style for himself.

Even though he continued to crank out wanna-be cool stuff like Vampire in Brooklyn and Metro and even a woeful Beverly Hills Cop III, it was probably the square, sweet, unthreatening side of Murphy's screen persona -- developed in vehicles like The Distinguished Gentleman, Holy Man and Mulan -- that has allowed him to survive as a big name in movies. Some of his choices suggest that Murphy is aware of, and amused by, this dichotomy. In The Nutty Professor and Bowfinger he pointedly played dual roles with overlapping identities -- a misfit with a decent soul on one side, and a slick, manic, high-powered jerk on the other. Bowfinger, an underrated little satire, may contain Murphy's best onscreen acting, and while Nutty Prof and its sequel were hopelessly shoddy pieces of filmmaking, Murphy was superb in both of them.

The impression one gets from the long view of Murphy's career is of a man working, largely, by himself. He doesn't demonstrate much feel for romance, and his male sidekicks, like Judge Reinhold and Arsenio Hall, seem more tolerated than enjoyed. It's no wonder that some of his most satisfying performances have been given in the solitude of the recording studio, or in films like Coming to America and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, where the principal co-stars with whom he worked were Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy and, oh yeah, Eddie Murphy. 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-Symone, who plays his daughter, Murphy barely acknowledges the other Homo sapiens on screen 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 showbiz maxim about working with animals.

Once Murphy's considerable resourcefulness and the appeal of his quadruped co-stars have been noted, there's little to be said either 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 will 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 seriously anyway. The onscreen villains (Jeffery 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.

A couple of pedantries are in order here: 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.

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Mark V. Moorhead