Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:25 - Released 6/26/98

It's always a bit depressing to me when Hollywood does a modern remake of an old children's classic movie, because it always says something to me about our changing tastes. Since censorship has been radically relaxed since the old days, new versions of those innocent old films almost always devolve into something rather cheap and crude. I can just imagine future releases: Bambi with diarrhea, the tin man rusting up because he wets his pants, and Willy Wonka having an illicit affair with one of the Oompa-Loompas.

Don't get me wrong; I can enjoy an occasional off-color joke as much as the next guy, but I prefer if they're not written into the old movies I loved as a kid. Alas, such is the case with 20th Century Fox's new version of Dr. Dolittle, directed by Betty Thomas and starring Eddie Murphy in the title role. This rewrite of Hugh Lofting's 1927 novel, penned by Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin, is a far cry from Leslie Bricusse's 1967 version.

John Dolittle has been able to talk to animals since he was a little kid. But his father (Ossie Davis) forced the boy to squelch his talent, fearing that he would become an outcast in society. Not until he grows up and becomes a successful M.D. does the ability resurface. Just as he and his partners (Oliver Platt, Richard Schiff) are about to close a deal with a big company incorporating their small practice, John starts hearing voices from stray dogs and guinea pigs.

After a period of denial, he accepts his gift and helps a rat who is suffering from stomach pains. He gains instant fame in the animal community and is soon overrun with a menagerie of patients, all suffering from various different ailments. Confusing his partners, his wife (Kristen Wilson), and two daughters (Kyla Pratt, Raven-Symone), he must make the choice whether to save his human relationships or his growing animal clientele. Or perhaps he can manage to do both.

Eddie Murphy is one of those actors who is almost always funny. Although this is not one of his best movies, he is thoroughly enjoyable here, with the other actors mainly staying out of the way of his bits. The human part of the story is quite silly; it is obviously just there to provide marginal support for the animal plot.

But the most fun aspect of this film (for me) is trying to guess at the multitude of celebrity voices featured as the animals. Norm MacDonald (Lucky the dog) and Chris Rock (Rodney the guinea pig) are easy; they're featured characters. But there is a host of TV and movie actors' voices playing bit parts all the way through, each with different characterizations. Listen for Albert Brooks, Reni Santoni, John Leguizamo, Julie Kavner, Garry Shandling, Ellen DeGeneres, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jenna Elfman, and Gilbert Gottfried, among others.

While this film, with its toilet paper and fart jokes, cannot possibly aspire to the kind of magic created by the 1967 version (I'll never forget that huge snail and butterfly), it does pack a few laughs and a great diversity of funny cameos. ***½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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