Reprising the role he first played in 1998, Eddie Murphy delivers a performance that can only be called a brilliant human trick. As the doctor who can converse with animals, Murphy comfortably shares the screen with a menagerie that includes two Pacific Western bears, a raccoon, a wolf, a wine-tippling monkey (held over from the first Dolittle) and a chameleon with serious doubts about his ability to blend in. "I'm invisible!" he shouts, without a trace of conviction.
Every actor knows it's useless to try to upstage a trained animal, let alone one with computer-animated lips and voices provided by the likes of Isaac Hayes (a possum) and Michael Rapaport (a raccoon who sounds like one of Martin Scorsese's goodfellas). But Murphy plays off these nonhumans with a sweet, happy ease. He seems as grateful to be in their company as most stars claim to be when chosen to join a Woody Allen ensemble. If you as a child suffered through the 1967 Doctor Dolittle with Rex Harrison, an elegant but ferocious performer who could have defeated a brontosaurus in a turf war, you will appreciate the distinction.
In this sequel, which is not only funny and quick but ecologically sensitive, Dolittle introduces a showbiz bear named Archie into the wild. Conceptually, it's something along the lines of A Star Is Born Free. Archie, whose talent doesn't go much beyond riding a bicycle and knowing the lyrics to "Copacabana," almost drowns while fishing (it never occurs to him that he needs to come up for air). But he must learn how to be manly enough, so to speak, to win the heart and paw of a lady bear named Ava. Lolling in a tub or standing on a toilet seat, Tank, the 800-lb. bear who plays Archie, is clearly a pro. Steve Zahn, who provides the voice, adds his own boyish, zonked-out energy. With the gracious cooperation of Murphy, Archie steals the movie.
(PG) Bottom Line: Animal magnetism