Early in Dr. Dolittle 2, the good doctor (Eddie Murphy) appears on TV. Apparently, after the first movie, where he was outed as a freak who can talk to animals, he’s now capitalizing on his newfound celebrity by guesting on the Crocodile Hunter’s show. In this brief scene, John Dolittle is leaning in toward the ground-level camera along side the ever-self-impressed Steve Irwin, the latter whispering in his usual stage-whispering way about an alligator he’s about to “surprise.” John, meanwhile, overhears the alligator himself mumbling to himself about how he’s not even a little bit surprised and that he’s gonna take out that pipsqueaky hunter fella. Dutifully alarmed, John tries to warn Steve, but alas, the great khaki-shorts-wearing hunter will have none of it, and so, when he turns… chomp!
This is a jolly good laugh, because Steve Irwin is so relentlessly and self-consciously annoying, but also because John—or more precisely, Eddie Murphy—is in on the joke, rolling his eyes and looking mock-horrified, much like you might if you were in his shoes. And this is the small genius of the moment, that it allows you to feel in league with Eddie Murphy, who seems wholly aware of the silliness of what he’s doing, not only as an on-camera partner to the notorious Irwin, but also as the franchise creation Dr. Dolittle. Once upon a time, the very idea that Eddie Murphy would make a living by talking to digital-lipped animals would have seemed strange indeed. How times change. Nowadays, he’s the go-to guy for kids’ movies.
In Dr. Dolittle 2, Murphy is again the poor sap at whom animals are blabbing all their beefs. That is, he’s the straight man, not exactly the best use of his talents. The primary gag in the second film, as in the first (which made some ungodly amount of money, i.e., $290.2 million) is that though John’s very good at managing the affairs of assorted critters, he can’t quite keep his own household in order. Here again, his longsuffering wife Lisa (Kristen Wilson) and daughters Maya (Kyla Pratt) and Charisse (Raven-Symone), are feeling neglected because dad’s so preoccupied with looking after the animals’ physical and psychological ailments. Inevitably, they find themselves losing patience and putting up with his shenanigans at the same time, and then forgiving him for being an inept father and husband, because he has such good intentions.
John has his own lesson to learn, of course. Again, as in the first film, he comes to appreciate family—the idea and the particulars in his own case—after getting his own way and servicing the animals in such dire need of his assistance (in case you’ve forgotten, this is the same lesson they all learned in the first movie). The minor difference here is that where the first film focused on John’s efforts to make things right with younger daughter Maya, here he’s dealing with the supposedly more complex issues pertaining to adolescent daughter Charisse. She’s rebelling in her own way (wearing her walkman in the house seems to be the most aggressive thing she does) and one aspect of this involves her interest in a too-cute-to-be-true pizza delivery boyfriend named Eric (Lil’ Zane, the requisite rapper-on-the-cast-list). But if the family-coming-together idea isn’t quite original, the route to enlightenment is just a little awkward, and that’s what makes the film worth thinking about at all.
The plot gets rolling when the doc is approached by a godfatherish beaver (1973’s The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing director Richard C. Sarafian) and his raccoon goombah (Michael Rapaport), to protect the furry forest inhabitants from indiscriminate loggers (trucks driven by anonymous, big-armed lugheads), led by a couple of money-grubbing corporate types (Jeffrey Jones and Kevin Pollak). Though he’s promised his family a trip to Europe, John just can’t refuse the animal mafia, and so he hauls everyone (including the helpfully narrating dog Lucky, voiced again by Norm Macdonald) out to the woods. Here John attempts to hook up a circus bear named Archie (played by a real bear named Tank and animatronic doubles, and voiced by Steve Zahn) with a wild bear named Ava (Lisa Kudrow). The reasoning is that a pair of procreating bears makes a case for “endangered” species, as opposed to the single Ava, who is merely “extinction” waiting to happen. (As you might anticipate, this anxiety about extinction leads to yet another supposed-to-be-funny movie rendition of “I Will Survive,” but it’s mercifully brief.)
The woods being the semi-magical place where everyone might be transformed, John and Archie soon find themselves in dreamy montages where they’re teaching one another to be more assertive, observant, and sexual—in a word, more masculine. This involves catching fish, tangling with honey bees, and building up endurance by jogging down tree-lined paths, not to mention farting and commenting on farting. Male mammal-bonding: it sure is idyllic, but it’s not so conducive to narrative coherence. Indeed, as spread around by writer Larry Levin and director Steve Carr, none of the film’s events have much to do with each other. But who cares? In the end, John gets wisdom, the bad guys get theirs, and the animals get to go home.
Still, this happy ending doesn’t make me feel any better about Eddie Murphy. I know he’s well-paid, and that he has kids of his own who may actually enjoy watching dad stuck in a bathroom with a huge digitally-effected bear passing gas on a toilet, but there’s something a little dismal about it too. He and Zahn’s voice make a decent comic partnership, but decency was never what Murphy did best. Here he’s reduced to a bizarre flatness, and it’s not just because most of his performance has been cobbled together with nonexistent acting partners in post-production. It’s also because of the dumbfounding effects of formula. There’s not a surprise or insight within miles of this picture.
All this comes back—in a roundabout way—to Eddie Murphy as a cultural force. Not so long ago, his SNL barbs were taking public aim at racism and other social injustices; that these are now traded off for warm and cuddly aphorisms about how to be a good daddy (or even a good advisor to lovelorn bears) surely has to do with the artist’s changed personal stakes, but sadly, don’t reflect an evolved cultural climate. This is not to overlook the homophobia or misogyny that was also part of his earlier work, but to note the costs of his mainstreaming—not to mention that of someone like Chris Rock, whose Pootie Tang is opening the week after Dolittle, to all-but-certain disaster, or Dave Chapelle, who’s making really dumb commercials. You have to wonder what makes this kind of mainstreaming a goal for anyone.