This sequel to the 1998 blockbuster Dr. Dolittle isn’t a great film, but it is very much a fun one — and a cute (but not cloying) and sweet (but not saccharine) one. There are lots of good, solid laughs to be had. Eddie Murphy is at his most appealing, the rest of the cast is uniformly good, the talking-animal effects are excellent, and the bulk of the gags really work. There’s not a whole lot more you can ask of a summer comedy (and usually you get a lot less). The story this round finds the celebrated Dr. Dolittle (Murphy) faced with a family crisis. His older daughter, Charisse (Raven-Symone, Dr. Dolittle), finds his high-profile status as the veterinarian who can talk to the animals embarrassing. Dolittle himself is having trouble dealing with the fact that his daughter is growing up, is utterly modern (her world is controlled by cell phones and beepers) and has a not entirely desirable boyfriend (Lil’ Zane, Finding Forrester). His solution of packing the whole family off to Europe runs aground when he starts receiving messages that “The Godbeaver” (voiced by Richard C. Sarafian, Blue Streak) wants to see him. Resistant at first, Dolittle succumbs to the gangsterish blandishments of a possum message boy (voiced by Isaac Hayes) and Joey the Raccoon (voiced by Michael Rapaport, The 6th Day) to meet this underworld leader of the forest animals. “The Godbeaver’s” problem is that unscrupulous developers (played to the hilt by Jeffrey Jones and Kevin Pollak) are set to destroy their forest home. It quickly transpires that the only hope is to find an endangered species inhabiting the area in order to get an injunction against the developers. The problem here is that the only endangered species is a single Pacific Western bear, Ava (voiced by Lisa Kudrow, The Opposite of Sex), and the only way to get the injunction is to find her a mate. Unfortunately, the only potential mate is Archie (voiced by Steve Zahn, Saving Silverman), a performing bear with little or no interest in the great outdoors. It then falls to Dolittle to convince Archie to return to the wild in the name of both romance and conservation — and then to teach him how to be the manly outdoorsbear Ava requires. It’s a nice, workable plot (something the original film sorely lacked), but it works as well as it does entirely because of the clever characterizations of the animals and the way in which Murphy (who is here maturing into a Bill Cosby-like performer) plays off them. The animals are an engaging lot. The Mafioso aspect is especially well-judged (“Mafia? Who said anything about the Mafia? I’m just a beaver with a great many friends”) with clever highlights like Joey the Raccoon’s immortal warning to Dr. Dolittle, “Hey, the Beaver offers you a fish, you take the fish,” and his subsequent claim, “Sure I’ve got rabies and can bite them, but I can only do so much.” And then there’s Archie the bear, who is cleverly characterized as not merely a performing bear, but a singularly bad performing bear. Every attempt that Archie makes at deliberate comedy or singing recalls the worst Borscht Belt comic or Vegas lounge singer imaginable — and each attempt is quite funny and “real” because of this. Surprisingly, the direction of Steve Carr — who’s best-known for music videos — is decidedly nonaggressive and generally workmanlike, as if he instinctively realized that the comedy would only have been diluted by a flashier approach. The only qualm that one might have with the film lies in its tendency to revert to toilet humor in its last stretches (the reaction to Dolittle trapped in a men’s room with Archie, who’s suffering from severe gastric distress, is a matter of taste), but this seems a fairly minor gripe with a film that is generally so well-crafted and obviously well-intentioned.
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