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Dr. Doolittle may not be perfect, but at least it doesn't have any comets.

By Coury Turczyn

JULY 13, 1998:  First week of July, and already the summer movie season seems shot to hell. Where did the excitement go? Just last spring, things appeared to be so promising—comets were on their way to destroy the Earth, Godzilla had reawakened and was expected in Manhattan, and even the space family Robinson had resuited and were about to get lost all over again. Life was good.

Now, they're all dead and gone and we have nothing to look forward to—and summer isn't even half over. Sure, every summer movie fest brings disappointment, but this has been devastating—everything sucks. Deep Impact? Duller than whatever's on the Lifetime Channel right now. Godzilla? Who knew such a brainless creature could walk among us. Lost In Space? Should've been on Fox where it belonged (before getting canceled and shuttled off to the Sci Fi Channel for nightly reruns). Where's our Men In Black? Our ID4? The X-Files was good, but it was mostly an expanded TV episode, not an event. All of our popcorn movies have gone rancid, and there's little hope on the horizon unless you're really into Lethal Weapon sequels or modern updates of old TV shows (The Avengers, Zorro). Nope—this has been the most underwhelming summer movie season in years...and we didn't even have to contend with a Batman sequel.

Which brings me to the reason why I couldn't force myself to see Armageddon. I have crossed a line, my friends—I can no longer get even slightly excited about big budget extravaganzas with more special effects than human actors. At one point, I was actually interested in witnessing this Jerry Bruckheimer epic of mass annihilation, but no more. This summer, Hollywood has beaten me down until I am without hope. There is nothing left for me but bad romantic comedies starring Julia Roberts and period dramas with Leonardo DiCaprio. Shoot me now.

So it was, against every expectation, that I went to see Dr. Dolittle instead. What I sought so desperately was simple comedic entertainment—no killings, no explosions, no guns, no sex (well, maybe a little). Just a couple of people doing something funny, maybe even being clever or witty. That's all I want. Is that so much to ask? Can't it be done in this day and age? Well, sort of—Dr. Dolittle may not make me believe in Hollywood again, but it had a few laughs to offer amid a rather dull story.

First and foremost, Dr. Dolittle serves as another attempt to repackage Eddie Murphy as a family entertainer as The Nutty Professor did a few years ago. By combining familiar material with Murphy's risqué jokes (well, for the PG-13 set, anyway), Dr. Dolittle appeals to both kids and their parents. Murphy stars as the title character, a medical doctor who is on the verge of a major financial merger when he discovers he can converse with animals. This freaks him out to such a degree that his family commits him to a mental institution. Will he come to terms with his special gift? Will he sell out his practice for big bucks? Will his family believe in him?

Certainly, this isn't a bad premise for a broad family comedy, but it doesn't seem to go anywhere. Murphy mostly screams and runs around in circles at his predicament, then suddenly goes with the flow and starts caring for all the animals that ask for his help. Why this sudden conversion? Well, it has something to do with the sale of his practice to an HMO, because he's lost touch with his patients, and, uh...whatever. Really, all this plot stuff is an excuse to stick some cute animals onscreen and have 'em say funny stuff to Murphy so we can see his reaction.

And as far as that goes, it's pretty funny stuff. Most of the voices are supplied by celebrities, including Albert Brooks, Julie Kavner, John Leguizamo, Garry Shandling, Paul Reubens, and Ellen DeGen-eres. Most entertaining is a guinea pig voiced by Chris Rock who gives the picture some much-needed zingers. But what was required here is more than simple animal one-liners—an actual story to provide a framework for those gags would've been nice. Injecting an ersatz villain in the shape of an HMO and an emergency involving an ailing circus tiger doesn't cut it.

What's largely missing from Dr. Dolittle is an insider's look into the animal world. What if somebody actually could talk to animals? What kind of fanciful universe could that person discover? What kind of relationships do animals have, what codes of conduct, what aspirations? While Dr. Dolittle has moments of this, it largely focuses on Eddie Murphy wigging out—because, you know, he's the star.

Oh well. At least nobody's head blew up.


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