More creative and entertaining than its flawed reputation allows, Richard Fleischer’s Doctor Dolittle is a whimsical fantasy a bit overlong and lacking precocity, but the music is lilting and the actors first-rate.
The Production: 3.5/5
Richard Fleischer’s Doctor Dolittle came along at a most inopportune time in the American movie industry. With the move away from big-budgeted studio productions aimed at a family audience and toward independent-minded, harder-edged features with a more specific adult audience in mind, Doctor Dolittle was a transitional victim of changing tastes in both films and music. After Fox had enjoyed bountiful profits from the roadshow family musical The Sound of Music, it made sense to roll the dice again, but Fox opted for an original musical with flavorful characters reminiscent of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music but within a fantasy framework, something that had produced record-breaking profits for Disney with Mary Poppins, Doctor Dolittle’s most obvious antecedent possessed of bits and pieces of that delightful Disney period tuner but lacking its most important ingredient: charm. Doctor Dolittle is big and bright and colorful, but it lumbers occasionally instead of lilts making it seem longer and less consistent in tone than its Disney counterpart.
Dr. John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) lives in the small English village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh where he specializes in caring for and verbally communicating with animals much to the chagrin of his neighbors who basically find him a crackpot. When Dr. Dolittle is unjustly sent to an insane asylum for freeing a lovesick seal from captivity, his animal companions including parrot Polynesia (voiced by Ginny Tyler), dog Jip, and Chee-Chee the chimp and his two closest human friends, Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) and Tommy Stubbins (William Dix), liberate him. Afterward, they join Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar, vocals by Diana Lee), the supportive niece of Dolittle’s sworn enemy local magistrate General Bellowes (Peter Bull), and set out by boat to find a famed and elusive creature: the Great Pink Sea Snail.
Composer-lyricist Leslie Bricusse has culled the dozen Doctor Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting and invented some of his own characters as well (the tentative triangle romance between Emma Fairfax, Dolittle, and Matthew Mugg was his own creation) to come up with his episodic set of adventures for his screenplay. He manages to get in some backstory of the good doctor explaining how this medical professional gave up on treating people and switching his allegiance to animals (wrapping the story around the Oscar-winning song “Talk to the Animals”), show how he came by money to finance his voyage in search of the Great Pink Sea Snail (the film’s most delightful musical sequence with “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It,” one of the composer’s celebrated marches), and got in trouble with the law necessitating his escape from prison (“When I Look into Your Eyes” and Dolittle’s plea for tolerance to his point of view in “I Do Not Understand”). Bricusse’s best friend Anthony Newley with whom he had written two popular stage successes and the hit song “Goldfinger” was gifted with four of the score’s biggest showcase numbers: “My Friend, the Doctor” which introduces us to Dolittle’s eccentricities long before we actually meet him, “Beautiful Things” as he sings Emma’s praises, “After Today” as he thrills to his first flush of romance, and the title song late in the film and the movie’s most unnecessary number. And love interest Emma got her “I want” song with “At the Crossroads” and the second act’s best tune “Fabulous Places” as she dreams of magical destinations they might search for their pink snail. But that left the bulk of the singing for Rex Harrison’s doctor, a string of talk-sung ballads with rather lilting melodies that we don’t get to hear much of because of his patented patter style of presenting tunes and somewhat tedious in their sameness of delivery: “The Vegetarian,” “Talk to the Animals,” “When I Look in Your Eyes,” “I Do Not Understand,” and “I Think I Like You.”
The production itself is a real honey with big, beautiful locations photographed exquisitely by Robert Surtees (who earned Oscar nominations in 1967 for both this film and The Graduate) and elaborate, colorful costumes by Ray Agayhan that pop right off the screen (Miss Eggar appears in a succession of extravagant gowns each more sumptuous than the next). Richard Fleischer’s direction (with musical numbers staged and shot by Herbert Ross) makes the most of his wide canvas showing intimate scenes as well as the expansive locations whose sometime troublesome conditions helped balloon the budget to almost three times its original estimate. But all that money still couldn’t produce the magic the film required at crucial moments. We spend two hours hearing about the Great Pink Sea Snail only to be disappointed when it finally makes an appearance, and the Lunar Moth at the climax is almost equally anticlimactic. The film earned the 1967 Visual Effects Oscar, but it was likely the storms at sea and an island rejoining the mainland that brought him the prize.
At the time, Rex Harrison was criticized as being completely unlike the Dolittle of the Lofting books, but for those unfamiliar with the character there, Harrison’s sharp, abrasive veterinarian who gets along much better with any animal other than humans is a compelling central character. Anthony Newley’s Irish accent fades in and out, but he’s so amiable that it doesn’t really matter. We see Samantha Eggar’s Emma Fairfax slowly succumbing to feelings for Dolittle as Newley’s Matthew Mugg pines for her on the sidelines, but the romantic element woven into the story is rather feeble and could just as easily been eliminated. Still the match with voice double Diana Lee is pretty seamless, and “Fabulous Places” offers both ladies moments to shine. William Dix is an agreeable youthfully frisky companion for the group. Peter Bull bellows heartily as General Bellowes, and Richard Attenborough walks away with his big sequence as Albert Blossom, owner of the circus that employs Dolittle and his most astonishing animal friend. Geoffrey Holder has some funny moments as the eloquent William Shakespeare X once the group gets to Sea-Star Island.
3D Rating: NA
Taken from Todd-AO elements, this brilliant 1080p transfer (AVC codec) represents the best Doctor Dolittle has ever looked on home video and represents one of the best Blu-ray transfers you’re likely ever to see. With its 2.20:1 original theatrical ratio, sharpness is astonishing throughout (one can see the make-up trail where Rex Harrison’s toupee netting is attached to his forehead), and color representation could not be bettered with blazingly rich hues all well controlled but still eye-popping and vibrant. Black levels are likewise strong in the film’s few dark scenes, and there isn’t a trace of age-related dirt or debris. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The disc generously offers both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround mixes, both in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Dialogue and song lyrics have been superbly recorded and have been routed to the center channel. The Oscar-nominated orchestrations get a superb spread through the fronts and rears and sound particularly lush in the 5.1 arrangement. (The transfer includes overture, entr’acte, and exit music.) Atmospheric effects likewise get sent to various channels, perhaps not in as sophisticated a fashion as today’s surround mixes but impressive for its era. No problems with hiss, crackle, or flutter exist.
Special Features: 4/5
Audio Commentary: music and film historian Mike Matessino hosts a wonderfully entertaining discussion with composer-librettist Leslie Bricusse who not only talks about the film but about Bricusse’s long show business career and his many professional and personal associations.
Isolated Score Track: presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo.
Rex Harrison: The Man Who Would Be King (44:10, SD): video biography of the sometimes explosive personal and professional life of the Oscar and Tony-winning actor.
Theatrical Trailer (1:38, SD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains a succession of color stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s encouraging analysis of the movie.
More creative and entertaining than its flawed reputation allows, Richard Fleischer’s Doctor Dolittle is a whimsical fantasy a bit overlong and lacking precocity, but the music is lilting and the actors first-rate. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.