Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby have been fighting for Eddie Murphy's soul ever since the young comic emerged on "Saturday Night Live" 15 years ago. Pryor seemed to have the edge during the early portion of Murphy's movie career, with 48 Hrs. and Raw. But lately, Cosby's been coming on strong. For who was The Nutty Professor's Sherman Klump if not a grown-up Fat Albert? And who is Murphy playing in Dr. Dolittle if not Cliff Huxtable, the grouchy paterfamilias of an upper-middle-class African American family? Murphy used to do a killer Cosby impersonation in which the great raconteur would get lost in the matted fur of his shaggy-dog stories. But not even Cosby, who likes to keep his comedy clean, has stooped to playing Dr. Dolittle. I wish I could say Murphy stooped to conquer. The kids I saw Dr. Dolittle with did seem to be enjoying themselves, perhaps because the filmmakers throw so many fat jokes, butt jokes and fat-butt jokes their way. Like The Nutty Professor, Dr. Dolittle majors in scatology, with a minor in peace, love and understanding. The difference is that The Nutty Professor graduated with honors, whereas Dr. Dolittle all but flunks out of Comedy School. As the guy who talks to animals but doesn't want anybody to know he does, Murphy gives it the old college try, but he's been assigned the straight-man role to a box of Animal Crackers who embody ethnic stereotypes. I mean, is it pure coincidence that the rats are Puerto Rican?
The movie's special effects are well done, I suppose, but they're no substitute for creativity. Babe has set a new standard for talking-animal movies, whereas Dr. Dolittle seems whipped together in the computer lab--a state-of-the-art episode of "Mr. Ed." Why Murphy, who's one of the most talented comedians to come along in years, would want to get mixed up in this project is beyond me. ("Never work with kids or computer-generated animals," the old adage goes.) Who would have thought, 10 years ago, that Eddie Murphy would one day become Captain Kangaroo?