I can tell you the exact moment when I gave up on the new, modernized
film version of the children's classic Doctor Doolittle. An owl has
spread word throughout the animal kingdom that a human doctor has the
ability to speak to and to understand the beasts of land, air, and sea, as
well as the compassion to fix whatever's ailing them. In response, all
sorts of flocks and herds have descended upon Doolittle's San Francisco
home and are sharing their litany of complaints. First up are three sheep,
who look up at the Doc and say, in unison, "Our butts hurt."
Now, this may just be a vague allusion to a dirty joke (something
involving lonely farmers, no doubt); but I have a different theory. I
believe the filmmakers just think it's funny to hear a talking animal say
"butt." The sheep chorus is not the first anal-related gag in the film, and
it's certainly not the last, but it is the most inexplicable and most
gratuitous. It marks the point at which any hope for a clever, cute movie
about the secret thoughts of animals disappears down a smelly hole.
Eddie Murphy plays the titular hero, no doubt in an attempt to follow up
on the success of his 1996 updating of The Nutty Professor. But that
comeback film offered Murphy multiple roles and multiple opportunities to
be funny. Here, he's reduced to playing the straight man to a gaggle of
voice-over talent. Granted, there are some high-quality names behind those
voices, including Garry Shandling as a whiny pigeon, Norm MacDonald as a
surprisingly sweet-natured mutt, Albert Brooks as a depressed tiger, and
Chris Rock as a sassy guinea pig (not to mention full-body appearances by
such top-notch character actors as Oliver Platt, Paul Giamatti, and Pruitt
Taylor Vince). But as funny as these stars are at times, their skills are
buried in a flurry of flat lines.
Doctor Doolittle seems to have borrowed the idea from the
execrable Theodore Rex that if your anthropomorphic creature can't
say anything interesting, you should just keep him talking fast in the hope
no one will notice. As a result, the audience is treated to a lot of animal
speeches along the lines of, "Hey! Whoa! What are you doing? Listen to me!
As for the plot, it's a careless afterthought revolving around a
ruthless HMO's takeover scheme and Doolittle's attempts to be a better
father to his neglected, unusually bright children. (Believe me, that reads
better than it plays.) Although Doctor Doolittle could be charitably
described as "amiable," it's hard to accept that a film with this much
talent in front of the camera could be so crude and unimaginative. One
wonders if the filmmakers thought the premise would be enough to start
with, and once the cameras started rolling, they'd get by on whatever they
could pull out of their...well, you get the idea.