Eddie Murphy talks to the animals in fine fashion in the new, rather disappointing Dr. Dolittle. More importantly, for us and the film, he listens pretty good, too, since the animals have all the best lines. In this updated version, written by Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin, of the classic Hugh Lofting stories, with San Francisco standing in for London and the South Seas, Dr. John Dolittle (Murphy), partnered with Drs. Weller (Oliver Platt) and Reiss (Richard Schiff), conks his head and rediscovers his repressed-since-adolescence ability to converse with animals. This causes a midlife crisis that also upsets his wife (Kristen Wilson) and daughters (Kyla Pratt, Raven-Symon), as well as his medical colleagues, who need him in top form to complete a deal to sell their practice/clinic for Peter Boyle's Medical-Establishment big bucks. Once he accepts his gift as a gift, Dolittle finds himself rejuvenated personally and medically, as his animal patients prove more rewarding that his human ones. (Naggingly present under all the humor is the fact that this isn't a very pretty picture of where we're at in the '90s). Helping or hindering are veterinarian Jeffrey Tambor, Dolittle's dad Ossie Davis, and gloating asylum head Steven Gilborn.

Let's face it, the 1967 version, which nearly put Fox out of business (they were hoping for Mary Poppins and got Cleopatra), was, apart from Richard Attenborough's bit as the circus owner, thoroughly godawful-whimsy cast in lead. This time out, the updating unfortunately erasing any sort of fairy-tale quality, the writers have sausaged the story (really just a situation) into simple and simplistic sitcom formula, which delivers some laughs, many surprisingly scatological. One running gag, involving an unattractive woman allergic to but addicted to shellfish, is more grotesque than funny. Perhaps post-production-inspired, there are many throwaway eccentric lines (including, in the film's funniest sequence, a Death Row/kennel bit, a winningly bizarre reference to Keyser Soze), but, in general TV-movie style, the, film soon caves in to the Big Lesson (accept what you are, even if it's weird, and live your life) and tear-jerky sentiment. What can we say of Eddie Murphy, who faces in one shot both so-called actor no-nos: working with kids and animals, even if the latter are mostly fake (marvelous creations of the Henson people). Self-effacing isn't exactly it; he oddly anchors the film just by spending most of his time the single human in the frame. Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts) directs it all smoothly, perhaps hinting at the necessarily solitary nature of Dolittle's 'gift.' (What other human being can share it?) The doctor gives short shrift to most of the humans in his life throughout-wife, children,, colleagues, etc.-and the last shot interestingly has him walking off alone into the Pacific sunset. Perhaps the existential dilemma of his situation will be dealt with in the sequel.

The casting is superb, and the Big-Name-Actor-voiced critters are all terrific; they make the film like a Disney animated cartoon without the animation. One must note, however, that they all have attitudes-they're all perpetually so angry-and there's not a cuddly thing in sight; these guys would make Rex Harrison and Lofting's literary character (who incidentally was quite pudgy-Murphy looked more like him in The Nutty Professor) run the other way. For completists, the PushmePullyou makes an appearance as an extra, and the end-title features a Louis Armstrong rendition of the Oscar-winning 'Talk to the Animals,' which unfortunately segues into a collection of dumb new pop tunes encouraging one to exit the theatre before the titles are over.

--David Bartholomew