As Doctor Dolittle, Eddie Murphy is nothing so much as a good sport. Playing an upper-class people doctor who happens to be able to talk to animals, he slips into his Billy Dee Williams get-up -- trimly braided, slicked-down hair, tasteful wire-rimmed glasses -- and allows himself to be upstaged by a motley assortment of creatures and their various troubles: a depressed and ailing circus tiger who threatens to jump from a tall tower; a tiny French monkey in a satin clown outfit who guzzles from a miniature Jack Daniel's bottle before flinging it aside ("I am a social drink-airre!" he insists); a trio of sheep who show up on Dolittle's doorstep and announce in unison, "Our butts hurt!" Murphy allows each one full rein, and for the audience, the only appropriate response is a kind of incredulousness: This is a movie, after all, where a couple of pigeons drop in for marriage counseling ("He's a self-hating pigeon!" the wife complains), and where a dog caged in a pound calls out from behind bars, "I am Keyser Soze!"
Nobody ever said the pleasures of talking-animal movies were subtle. In fact, by now the concept of putting words into our furry friends' mouths is so bewhiskered it shouldn't even be funny anymore. So why is a movie like Betty Thomas' "Doctor Dolittle" -- which doesn't hang together as cohesively as her prior descent into wackiness, "The Brady Bunch Movie" -- such a weird delight? I'd venture to guess the new technology has nothing to do with it: Like "Babe" before it, "Doctor Dolittle" uses computer animation and "animatronics" to make the animals' moving mouths more realistic, but that all seems beside the point. Personally, I was always perfectly happy with the old-style "Thomasina" method, where the animal "actor" just does animal stuff and the human voice-over clues us in to his or her thinking. Asta, one of the most famous and wonderful movie dogs of all time, spoke volumes with just a twitch of his tail; he'd surely turn up his snout at the whole idea of using movie fakery to coordinate animal lips with distinctly human sounds. And sure enough, sometimes in "Doctor Dolittle," the moving lips are just a distraction: Lucky, a shaggy golden mutt who's one of the movie's main characters, is most charming when he's just walking around like a dog.
The fun of "Doctor Dolittle" has less to do with its snazzy effects than with the way it keeps us wondering what kind of furry, feathered or scaly lunacy will pop up next. The basic story line is a throwaway that has virtually nothing to do with the Hugh Lofting books: As a child, John Dolittle discovers he can talk to the family dog. He gets into trouble when he sniffs the butt of his school's new principal, having been advised by his canine pal that that's the best way to size up a new acquaintance. Ultimately, his father (Ossie Davis) sends the dog away, and the heartbroken Dolittle loses -- or submerges -- his knack for communicating with animals; he grows up to be a successful M.D. and family man who doesn't seem to care much for four-legged creatures or their cockamamie troubles. But suddenly and inexplicably, his gift returns. His young daughter's hamster starts to talk to him (in the voice of Chris Rock), and before long, word spreads throughout the land that he's hip to the trials and tribulations of all creatures great and small.
There's a spiritual transformation (Dolittle is at first cranky with his new friends, but quickly warms up to them), and some tidy little lessons about how it's OK to be different, how daddies can make mistakes too, how making lots of money is less important than doing good deeds and so forth. The movie gets weighed down by its share of lame jokes and gratuitous gross-outs: Dolittle gives mouth-to-mouth to a zonked-out rat as his wife and colleagues look on in horror; a human patient with severe allergies keeps showing up at his office with grotesquely swollen eyes and splotchy skin. You also have to be able to tolerate some mild toilet humor, such as your stock pigeon-dropping sequence.
But mostly, Thomas manages to keep "Doctor Dolittle" lively without mistaking shrill, manic action for energy, as so many comedies aimed at younger audiences do. And the steady stream of goofy little jokes and sight gags carries "Doctor Dolittle" along surprisingly well. Maybe that's because many of the jokes just don't make much sense: They're as absurd as the idea of animals talking -- if you can get behind that premise, then you're pretty well primed to laugh at the skunk who, ridiculously, sounds just like Peter Lorre. (Guest voices include Julie Kavner as half of the pigeon couple and Albert Brooks as the troubled tiger.) When the police arrive at Dolittle's hospital (to retrieve the tiger, whom Dolittle has "stolen" from the circus so he can treat him), they're confronted by a protective barricade of Dolittle's barnyard friends, an array of ducks, goats and other assorted critters who shout defiant epithets in the manner of anti-war demonstrators.
Through all of the movie's nonsense, Murphy plays the straight man, admonishing the bourbon-slugging primate, "Nobody likes a drunk monkey!" and, most memorably, trying to explain obsessive-compulsive behavior to a wound-up terrier while holding a ball aloft in his hand. The old actor's rule -- never work with animals or kids -- has never seemed more apt. The animals steal the scene from Murphy every time, and he gives it up gladly. It's true, nobody likes a drunk monkey -- but you've got to hand it to the guy who dodges the bottles.