I can walk with the animals, talk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals and they can squeak and squawk and speak and talk with me!
Once upon a time, Hollywood actually cared about family entertainment. Studios produced lavish Technicolor musicals with charm and style that could be enjoyed by the whole family. Although the genre had almost died by the end of the 1950s, it continued to surface occasionally throughout the '60s with such hits as My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, and of course The Sound of Music.
Doctor Dolittle was Twentieth Century Fox's contribution to late 1960s musical cinema. It was a troubled production, hampered by constant rain, logistical problems, and the complications one might expect when working with all manner of animals. There was also a homemade bomb which was set by a disgruntled citizen of the town where much of the movie was shot. When the movie finally did get to theaters it was very poorly received by critics and the general public alike. It grossed only $9 million, compared to production costs of $18 million. It took twenty years before Fox was able to show a profit on the picture.
This charming but flawed movie is now available on DVD from Fox Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Dr. John Dolittle (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Anna and the King of Siam) is a veterinarian, living in the quaint little town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, in England in 1845. Dr. Dolittle used to be a regular doctor until he found that he generally preferred the company of animals to the company of people. The real turning point in his life came when his wise old parrot Polynesia began teaching him how to speak the languages of all the animals. This unique ability to speak his patients' languages makes Dr. Dolittle the best veterinarian in England, if not the world. His patients come from all around to seek his advice and treatment, often without the knowledge of their human owners.
In addition to his veterinary duties, Dr. Dolittle is an adventurer, traveling all over the world in search of rare and mysterious animals, curing their ailments, learning their languages, writing books about them, and so forth. The Doctor's latest quest is to find the legendary Great Pink Sea Snail. Most people believe it to be mythical, but the Doctor is sure he can find it and make contact.
However, in order to make the voyage to find the snail, Dr. Dolittle must first raise money. He does this by entering into an agreement with Mr. Blossom (Sir Richard Attenborough, Jurassic Park, David Copperfield, The Great Escape), a circus owner of dubious ethics. In exchange for Dr. Dolittle's "Pushmi-Pullyu" (a two-headed llama) performing in the circus, Blossom will give the doctor a healthy cut of the gate receipts. After a short conference with the Pushmi-Pullyu, Dr. Dolittle accepts.
The Doctor soon raises enough money for the trip and is ready to set sail, but first takes it upon himself to free one of Blossom's trained seals who is lonely and wants to return to the wild to see her husband. This leads to Dr. Dolittle's eventual arrest and committal to an insane asylum at the hands of the pompous General Bellows (Peter Bull, Dr. Strangelove, Tom Jones, Lock Up Your Daughters!). However, The Doctor soon escapes with the help of his animal friends. He then sets sail with his friends Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley, Oliver Twist), young Tommy Stubbins (William Dix), and Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar, The Collector, The Seven Percent Solution, Walk, Don't Run) in search of the Great Pink Sea Snail. Their adventure eventually leads them to Sea Star Island, a floating island destined to drift aimlessly over the seas, where even more strange adventures await them.
Rex Harrison is by far the greatest strength of this movie. His Dr. Dolittle is a lovable eccentric and strides through the world with good cheer and self-confidence, seemingly unaware that there is anything the least bit strange going on. Harrison plays the role completely straight and takes the material completely seriously, albeit with a wonderful light touch. He never stoops to the level of camp and never tries to make himself out as smarter than the material. As a result he is always completely believable, even in the midst of such a wild concept. His "powerful patter" delivery lends a conversational air to his songs, helping them seem like natural outgrowths of his character and the story rather than contrived musical interludes. He is perfect in the part. If you don't believe me, just ask yourself: who else could take a love song sung to a seal dressed in a bonnet and dress and evoke a real sentimental reaction?
Along with Harrison's performance there are some wonderfully sly moments. There are clever sight gags such as an eye chart for horses and Polynesia the Parrot standing in for a rooster. There is also a fair amount of clever wordplay, delivered rapid-fire to great effect.
The movie is also beautifully shot, with sweeping scenery. The filmmakers shot in two main locations. One was the English town of Castle Combe, which had been voted the "prettiest town in England" in 1962. The town and surrounding scenery look as if they sprang to life from the pages of a storybook. The other main location was the Caribbean island of St. Lucia which became Sea Star Island. The scenery here is breathtaking as well, and helps to draw the viewer into the movie.
Doctor Dolittle comes to us from Fox Home Video in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The picture is for the most part sharp and clear, the colors are rich and vibrant, and there are few digital flaws. The source print was apparently in very good condition as well, as there are few nicks or scratches visible. There are occasional instances of softness, and the odd shimmer or over-enhanced edge. Occasionally the colors seem a bit yellowed or faded, just enough to remind one that this is a 33 year old movie. On the whole it looks great and is as good as anyone could ask for.
There are three audio options available; English Dolby 4.0 and Dolby Stereo, and a monaural French language track. The Dolby 4.0 mix is a disappointment. It is clear enough, but lacks proper high or low end response and comes out sounding muffled. Also, there is a fairly pronounced hiss audible under the audio at all times.
Extra content is limited to a theatrical trailer. It is presented in its original aspect ratio and shows its age pretty badly. It is faded and scratched, and the audio quality is very poor. Still, it is better than nothing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As good as Harrison is, and as good as Robert Surtees' photography is, they are unable to save this overlong and unwieldy musical. A good story should start at the beginning and lead to an end, hopefully with a climax somewhere in between. In the case of Doctor Dolittle, all of the real excitement takes place in the first 100 minutes, leaving almost an hour with nothing but a series of situations that feel like attempts kill time until someone can discover the rest of the plot. With a little better writing, the first 100 minutes and the last 50+ minutes might have worked a lot better as two separate movies.
Even in the first 100 "exciting" minutes of the movie there are a lot of plot digressions and pacing problems. There is a lot of needless exposition as unnecessary characters are introduced. The character of Matthew Mugg in particular is superfluous; who needs cheap comic relief when the movie stars a truly gifted comic actor like Rex Harrison? Mugg's presence is even more detrimental given Anthony Newley's performance of the character. Newley does his best to maintain a believable Irish accent throughout the movie, and winds up sounding like a cross between the Lucky Charms leprechaun and Commander Chekov from Star Trek. Newley does have some singing and dancing talent, but with the exception of the amusing "My Friend the Doctor" his talents are mostly wasted in musical numbers that bring the movie to a grinding halt. Samantha Eggar is completely wasted as Emma; this character could have been eliminated completely and no one would ever have known the difference. It would have cut a lot of time out of the movie as well, as the character has a couple of time-wasting musical numbers that do absolutely nothing for the story. The character that should have gotten more screen time is Tommy Stubbins, played by William Dix. Tommy could have been a solid viewpoint character with whom children of all ages could identify, but the opportunity was wasted.
As stated above, the audio on this disc is pretty poor, and the extra content is limited to one little trailer. I realize that the folks at Fox lost their shirts on this when it first came out, but couldn't they have invested a little more time in the DVD?
While it has its charming moments, Doctor Dolittle ultimately fails as a movie. Rex Harrison alone might make it worth a rental; I'll probably watch parts of it again just for his performance. I can't recommend it for much more than that.
I refuse to convict Doctor Dolittle of any wrongdoing, because I know that if I do all imaginable kinds of animals will descend upon my house and make my life miserable. Accordingly, the movie is free to go. Fox Home Video is guilty of giving us a disc with almost no extra content and mediocre audio.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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