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DOCTOR DOLITTLE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley
Director:  Richard Fleischer
Audio:  Dolby Digital 4.0, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  151 Minutes
Release Date:  October 31, 2000

Film **1/2

Doctor Dolittle has earned a special place amongst cinema’s most maligned films.  It was a lavish, expensive musical production that flopped so badly on initial release, it nearly sunk 20th Century Fox (or so it’s been reported), barely earning back half of its production costs.  Even the one bright spot in its history is a moment of controversy, as the film took home the Oscar for Best Song that year for “If I Could Talk to the Animals”.  Many since then have expressed outrage over the fact that “The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s The Jungle Book was a much better song and should have walked away with the statue.  The fact that the movie was also nominated for Best Picture is a point hardly discussed by modern critics.

It didn’t help that the timing was so poor.  In 1967, much of the charm had already gone out of the movie musical genre, and in a few short years, it would practically cease to exist save for the animated features that allowed one outlet for it to remain alive.  One would think, also, the choice of Rex Harrison to play the title role a good one…however, despite being a good actor and having the charm to become an unqualified success as Professor Henry Higgins in both stage and screen versions of My Fair Lady, the truth of the matter is…the man couldn’t sing.  He got away with it in Lady, opting for a rather unusual approach in the pre-rap era:  he basically spoke the lyrics expressively in time with the music, while, if you listened to the lead instruments in the orchestra, you could get what the actual melody was supposed to be.  It worked once.  In Doctor Dolittle, I found his style a bit wearisome, rivaled only by the moments when he actually did try to sing the notes.  Ouch!

Of course, while the talking-to-animals fantasy from the original books seemed like the perfect kind of magical world to realize on the big screen, one mustn’t forget that the popular children’s stories by Hugh Lofting were beginning to get a bad reputation.  The good Doc, as it turns out, wasn’t very politically correct.  It’s hard to find unaltered version of these books nowadays, particularly in public libraries, but if you can ever get your hands on one, you might be surprised at some of the things you’ll see in it.  Among them, mermaids illustrated without tops and frequent uses of racial slurs directed toward Africans and other natives, who were also almost always depicted as silly and subservient to the leading white characters.  These elements, naturally, are not in the film version…in fact, during the finale with the African natives, the movie makers tried to add a sense of class and intelligence to the leader, giving him the name Willie Shakespeare and even having him quote from the Bard’s works.

Ultimately, however, I think the film suffers most from just being too long (a fatal flaw for a children’s film) and from lacking any memorable tune (a fatal flaw for a musical).  The film has a terrific visual look, and plenty of imaginative ideas, and to be sure, the notion of a man learning to speak the language of the animals is an appealing one.  I enjoyed Mr. Harrison’s performance as the good doctor quite a bit, when he wasn’t trying to sing.  The supporting cast of animals are all charming, and one can only imagine the amount of work it must have taken to corral them all and keep them in line (I’ve read that Rex Harrison actually had to deal with being urinated on frequently over the course of filming).  There are effects scenes that are astounding, too.  My favorite is the giant whale, who gives the lost tropical island a much needed push.  The pushme pullyou double headed llama is a more simply constructed effect, but equally as charming.  And, of course, the giant sea snail at the end who takes the British visitors back home is a treat (though I can’t help but think there are better ways to travel than on the back of a big slug).

I suddenly realize I’ve written several paragraphs of this review, and I haven’t yet got around to discussing the plot…maybe that’s indicative of another of the film’s flaws.  The plot is simply this:  a doctor learns to speak the language of animals, becomes a veterinarian, and plans for the day he can set out and look for a mythical giant pink sea snail.  That’s it…yet the film runs over two and a half hours.

A little economic trimming might have gone a long way.  The musical numbers could have been halved, for one, or even done away with altogether.  They add nothing but padding to the story.  There’s not even any choreography or visual flair to go with them except for the big circus number, and as mentioned, Mr. Harrison is really no singer.  I also would have done away with Anthony Newley’s Irishman character, which is blandly written and poorly acted, and brings nothing but extra filler.  A few trims like these could have produced a palatable and delightful children’s film, rather than a musical of taxing length.

Yet, for it’s flaws, there is still plenty to like about Doctor Dolittle.  It succeeds in bringing you into a world of beauty and fantasy and magic with its likeable premise, its visual style, and its sense of imagination.  It only fails because it tries to keep you there long after you’re ready to go back home.

Video ***1/2

This is a beautiful looking anamorphic transfer from Fox, one that compares to some of the other great looking musicals on DVD like My Fair Lady or Singin’ in the Rain.  The colors are magnificent from beginning to end:  bright, vibrant and lively, with no sense of bleeding or distortion.  Images are generally very sharp and clear, though occasionally shots in deeper focus soften up just slightly.  Being a dual-layered disc, I noticed no incidents of grain, noise, break-up, shimmer or other compression artifacts.  The print itself is in remarkable condition, with very, very little in the way of noticeable spots or blemishes.  This is definitely a transfer that does justice to the movie’s unique visuals.

Audio ***

The disc features both a stereo soundtrack and a 4.0 surround, and after quick comparison, the surround track is definitely more lively and with better open range, though to be honest, I’m not entirely sure which 4 channels were being accessed…I think signals were being sent to the three front stage speakers and one mono signal to the rears, but being that the rear stage was sparsely used, I’m not entirely sure.  There is a good mix and balance of sound across the fronts, though, and despite the age of the film, the audio is quite clear, with little in the way of noise or thinness…certainly nothing distracting.  Overall, a pleasant and lively listen.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Doctor Dolittle may have just been the wrong film at the wrong moment in history:  a big scale and expensively produced musical coming around at the dénouement of that genre.  It should have been a much shorter film, and possibly not even a musical, in order to more successfully reach children as a target audience.  However, those who were kids at the time of the movie’s initial release have remained loyal to it, by and large, and despite some obvious flaws, it’s not hard to see why.  There is much to praise about the movie’s whimsical visual look and the fantastic and imaginative world it created for its audiences that keep the film a safe return for modern families, if not always a top choice.