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NATURE SPEAKS

DR. DOLITTLE 2 *** 1/2

STARRING: Eddie Murphy, Kristen Wilson, Jeffrey Jones

DIRECTOR: Steve Carr

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for mild language

THE LOWDOWN: The doctor who can talk to the animals tries to save a forest.

School's out this week, and the kids are probably already asking "what can we do?"

To the rescue is "Doctor Dolittle 2," a nearly perfect family film making a well-timed debut today. The sequel to the 1998 hit stays with what worked the first time: a funny story with multilayered appeal that entertains the little ones as well as the adults.

Eddie Murphy reprises his role as the doctor who can talk to the animals, and the filmmakers were savvy enough to bring back his charming screen family - Kristen Wilson as Dolittle's lawyer-wife and Raven-Symone and Kyla Pratt as his daughters. Norm Macdonald returns as the voice of Lucky the dog.

The story picks up a bit down the road from where it left off. Now, the doctor's gift of gab with the animals is accepted by everyone with barely a second glance. But his notoriety and long hours are taking a toll on his neglected family.

His practice has expanded to include both humans and animals. In his spare time, he leads meetings for stray animals ("Repeat after me: "I am somebody's best friend,' " he enthusiastically says to pick up the spirits of a depressed group of strays) and is seen on television alongside "The Crocodile Hunter." When he's home with the family, the animals still won't leave him alone.

The environment plays a big role in the film as Dolittle is approached by animals to help them protect their wilderness home, which is about to be demolished by yet another evil businessman (Jeffrey Jones). To do this, he plays matchmaker between a flashy circus bear who has never had his paws dirty and the forest's lone endangered animal, Ava, a Pacific Western bear. If the bears mate, the court will order the work halted in a "Darwin vs. Dolittle" battle.

It's the usual story of the love-struck guy - but in this case, a bear - doing anything he can to get the girl of his dreams.

In addition to the environment, the script tackles other pertinent issues, including the family. Dolittle can talk to animals, but not his moody 16-year-old daughter, who he has to reach by pager or cellular - even when she's in the house. He has to deal with his overprotective feelings when he meets her less-than-satisfactory new beau Eric (played by recording artist Lil' Zane), the pizza delivery boy. And he supports his youngest as best he can as she deals with her insecurities.

Kids will love all the talking, singing and dancing animals and parents will get a kick out of nods to "The Godfather," "Rocky," "Silence of the Lambs" and "The Birds" via Mel Brooks. "Dr. Dolittle 2" has the right prescription for family fun.

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