That’s so not Raven.
“Nice” siblings everywhere, take heart. When the Dolittle franchise went for a third installment without the doctor, it wasn’t the rebellious daughter who got the call to star in “Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief,” a direct-to-video sequel. It was the perky obedient one.
So Charisse (Raven Symoné) was out, and Maya (Kyla Pratt) was in. That’s just the direction the studio apparently wanted to go, because this third “Dr. Dolittle” is also by far the most family-friendly–the least crammed with attitude and humor involving bodily functions. And really, I’ve had it up to hear (pun intended) with attitude and marathon burps and farts. Having to sit through that sort of “humor” was almost as painful as watching a comedian I thoroughly admired mire himself in yet another lackluster film. So mercifully, the doctor is not in, and in fact, aside from Pratt, everyone involved with the first two films is nowhere to be seen.
That turns out to be a real positive. Pratt is warm and likable in the lead role, and seldom-used director Craig Shapiro, who began his career with a TV show about a dog and a boy (“Breakfast with Einstein,” 1998), does a fine job of handling the animals so that they remain more cute than annoying or overly dominant. It’s a sweeter film by far than the first two, and though the plot is obviously geared toward the ‘tweens age bracket, there’s enough here to appeal to younger (and possibly older) family members as well. I say “possibly” because that all depends on what you want from a family movie. If it’s something geared for children that adults can watch with them and not be bored out of their skulls or worried about the content, then I think this one comes close to filling the prescription. I won’t go so far as to say that the humor is particularly clever, but at least it’s not coarse, raunchy, or so dumb that you feel like you’ve been duped into watching stupid pet tricks, and nothing more.
In fact, the dumbest thing about this film is the initial premise. Maya’s dream is to become a veterinarian like the father she adores, and we’re first introduced to her as she shows up for her admissions interview and “tests” at the Dolittle School of Veterinary Science. What? You mean to tell me that Daddy donates the money to construct a building and a program at a major university, and his daughter isn’t a shoe-in? Have the writers never heard of “legacies”?
Then again, if it was all that simple, this would have been a totally different movie that would have come closer to other low-IQ college comedies like “Back to School.” This way, it’s not about Maya trying to make it in college. It’s about something infinitely more interesting: Maya trying to treat the President’s dog.
You heard me. But as far-fetched as it sounds, once you get past the illogical legacy thing and the fact that the President’s Secret Servicemen want Dr. Dolittle to solve a canine crisis but quickly settle for the doctor’s daughter (without a background check?), the movie pleasantly glides along. It turns out that being able to talk to animals is hereditary, and Maya has her father’s gift but with much more patience and understanding. She’s a nice kid that you find yourself rooting for from the very beginning. So what does the President want with her? The first dog has been acting up, and we’re not just talking about pee on the rug or chewed up slippers. This doggie is trashing whole rooms at the presidential retreat, where the Commander-in-Chief is soon to host a delegation to clinch a very important deal. The President (believably played by Peter Coyote) is hoping that a heart-to-heart talk with this wannabe veterinarian/therapist will do the trick.
There’s not much surprise here. It’s a feel-good film that you know is structured so that Maya can prove herself and get the ultimate letter of recommendation that would help her break down that admissions door. But the characters in “Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief” are likeable and there’s just enough plot to make the film entertaining. This film has a few other things going for it. For one thing, it’s an advocacy film that isn’t preachy. It feels like a natural, matter-of-fact outgrowth of the plot that the focus is on endangered species and global decisions that would favor ecological sustinance. A message like this at the film’s core comes across far better than it did in the sillier “Dr. Dolittle 2.” Romance-minded ‘tweens will be satisfied by a romantic sideplot involving Maya and a Secret Service bodyguard assigned to protect the president’s daughter (Elise Gatien), while parents will appreciate that the budding relationship is as wholesome and innocent as can be, and that they retrieve the president’s daughter from a party where the message is clearly stay away from such alcohol-fueled open houses. And it’s all done so gracefully that parents won’t even have to worry about younger children being exposed to things prematurely.
Parental approval is one thing, but actually being able to sit through a film designed for kids is quite another. In this matter, I was grateful that Shapiro directed his actors to play it reasonably real, not over-the-top, which has come to define the cheap comedies that have overpopulated the Disney Channel these days.
And the animals? All I can say is cool. For a change we get to see some different critters, many of them endangered (including an anteater) and all of them provided by the Mountain View Conservation & Breeding Center, whose goal is to breed threatened species and then reintroduce them into the wild. Oh, there are a few corny lines and moments featuring the dog and a Capuchin monkey, but for the most part it’s fun watching the animals do their thing among the humans.
“Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief” is rated PG for “brief mild language and some rude behavior”–but as I said, it’s not all that much. This one comes as close to a G rating as you can get, I think.
Not much to say about the video quality except that it’s a decent picture. It doesn’t blow you away, nor does it disappoint. The film is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, which stretches to fit the entire 16×9 television monitor. Colors are pleasantly bright and rich, and though there’s a very slight fuzziness around some of the edges it’s still a clear picture with a decent amount of detail.
The audio is a decent English Dolby Digital 5.1, with additional options in Spanish and French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, and subtitles in English and Spanish. It’s a clear, if not dynamic, soundtrack that makes pretty good use of rear effects speakers, especially when the animal antics kick in. Music also gets channeled through more speakers than the dialogue. “Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief” is closed captioned in English for the hearing impaired.
The bonus features are scant and brief, but fun to watch. Three of them-“Casting Critter Sessions,” “Working with Actors of a Different Breed,” and “Goin’ Wild”-feel so similar in focus that they could have been combined into one feature. In them, Pratt and others talk about working with the animals, and we see plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. It’s funny, in a way, to hear her talk about how she had to fly in especially to meet with the monkey, to make sure she got along with it. Nothing was said about what they would have done if the two didn’t hit it off, though. A fourth feature gives us a brief tour of the Mountain View Conservation & Breeding Center in Canada, which supplied all the animals, and we hear more about their efforts to sustain endangered species.
Maybe it’s because I expected a real turkey that I was pleasantly surprised that “Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief” was as entertaining as it was. Then again, thinking back to the first two films, maybe it’s just because this one doesn’t go so far over-the-top or settle for cheap laughs. The animals are fun, the characters are likeable, and the movie has a nice subtle message for kids. Is it predictable and formulaic? Yep. But it does what it attempts fairly well, and for that I give it some credit