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Doctor Dolittle (1967)

review by Anthony D.

 

Rated R

Studio: Fox

Running Time: 151 minutes

Starring: Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, Richard attenborough, Peter Bull, Muriel Landers, William Dix, Geoffrey Holder, Portia Nelson, Norma Varden and a score of cute and cuddly mammals, birds, reptiles as well.

Screenplay by Leslie Bricusse
Music and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse

Directed by Richard Fleischer

Retail Price: $29.98

Features: Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English 4. Dolby Digital, English Dolby 2.0, French Dolby 1.0, English, and Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search

To say that this musical version of Hugh Lofting's tales for children bears no resemblance to the recent Eddie Murphy comedy might possibly be the apex of understatement. Released by 20th Century Fox, still high on the wave of "The Sound of Music," this musical was considered to be Fox's big-budget musical for the Christmas season of 1967. High hopes were placed on "Doctor Dolittle's" being able to tackle the box office with as much force as "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music" had; instead "Doctor Dolittle"wound up as being Fox's Christmas turkey. What went wrong? More on that, later. For now, let's concentrate on what is right with "Doctor Dolittle."

The films begins with a charming animated credit sequence before gliding into the charming English town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in the fabulous year of 1845. Here a humble fishmonger, Matthew Muggs (Anthony Newley), entertains a young Tommy Stubbins (William Dix) with fantastic tales of "My Friend the Doctor," while leading the boy (and a wounded duck) to the country estate of one John Dolittle, Doctor of Veterinary Science (Rex Harrison - a long way from "My Fair Lady"). Dolittle sees to the duck, and entertains his guests with tales of his decision to be "A Vegetarian" and his uncanny ability to "Talk to the Animals." These social skills with four-legged creatures, as well as amphibians and fish, will come in handy on Dr. Dolittle's quest for the legendary Great Pink Sea Snail; if only he can earn the money to make a voyage to the South Seas. Luckily for the audience, and for the good doctor, a crate containing a creature never seen in the British Isles arrives for Doctor Dolittle.

Dolittle promptly takes the creature, a two-headed llama, called a Pushmi-Pullyu, who loves to dance off to the circus. The pushmi-pullyu is a sensation, and John is able to earn enough money to buy a used sailing vessel. But, one of the circus' seals, Sophie, is desperate to see her husband at the North Pole (which in 1845 had yet to be discovered) so the good doctor breaks Sophie free and takes her to Plymouth disguised as an old woman, and tosses her off a cliff, after singing the moving love song "When I Look in Your Eyes." Sophie merrily swims away, but Doctor Dolittle is arrested for the "murder" of "his grandmother!"

At the trial, John is acquitted of the "murder," but is sentenced to a stay at the nearest asylum because of his "outrageous" claims of speaking the languages of animals. But with friends like Matthew and Tom, as well as his favorite animals, a successful jailbreak leads our intrepid heros off to sea on "The Flounder," the boat purchased with the circus earnings. The Flounder is also carrying a stowaway, the lovely Emma Fairfax who harbours a secret crush on the good doctor, but in turn is loved from afar by Matthew. (This triangle is for the adults in the audience who have by now grown tired of the antics of the animals.) Finding the Great Pink Sea Snail's stomping ground is decided by a particular scientific method know as "stick in the pin," wherein one plunges a hit pin blindly into a map, and wherever the pin happens to fall is the final destination. Emma's hatpin sends the voyagers off toward "The Floating Island," but a storm at sea puts hopes of finding the island to rest as the ship is tossed and turned and ripped to shreds. Leaving the sea-tossed voyagers to their own devices (and in order to not give away any endings), let's proceed to the DVD itself.

 

 

Considering that the material is thirty years old, the print used for the anamorphic presentation is remarkably crips and clean. Robert Surtees' photography is outstanding, and deserved its Academy Award nomination. Castle Comb's streets, docks and houses - - substituting for Puddleby-on-the-Marsh - - exhibit a mere glimmer of shimmering, but not nearly as much as on the previous laserdisc version of "Doctor Dolittle." The images are sharp and detailed, and the colors blaze through with a delightful array of multi-hued eye-candy! Only on rare occasions do the colors not ring true: in Chapter Nine, the fox-hunt coat of General Bellowes is more orange than red, but that is indeed a very minor quibble; only one chapter later we are treated to a very verdant greenery beneath a lush blue sky while Samantha Eggar, as Emma, is wearing a creamy yellow frock. This transfer displays very little grain nor nary a trace of artifacting. All in all, quite a beautiful film to look at.

Being a film musical, naturally the sound is as good as I had expected it to be. "Doctor Dolittle" is presented in Dolby Digital 4.0 surround, with the surround basically limited to an extension of the orchestrations. The front soundstage however, is quite active with directionalized dialogue and sound effects. For the most part, the dialogue is clean, although mostly ADR-produced. Dialogue is quite intelligible as are the songs' lyrics. A cautionary note to those viewers with pets though, the animal sounds are for the most part genuine, and when poor Gub-Gub the Pig squeals in Chapter Six, my dog comes running, so viewers may expect similar response from their pets. Quite a pleasant aural experience from an older library title, certainly not up to today's intricate sound designs.

This not being one of Fox's Five-Star-Collections titles, there is nothing but an acceptable trailer.

Well, here comes the sad news for musical film fans: This is NOT the original version of "Doctor Dolittle" that played theatres in 1967. Certain cuts were made in the film's long running time after initial box office results. These cuts are still with us on the DVD. Missing in action are the Prologue where we had previously seen Doctor Dolittle traveling through the jungle to find a crocodile with a toothache, and the subsequent extraction of that tooth. An interior edit has been made in the song "Beautiful Things" (Chapter Fourteen) and Emma and Matthew perform the song completely outside of the circus tent, whereas in the initial release, they moved under the big top. Emma and Matthew fell victim to the next editor's snipping; Matthew's love song to the sleeping Emma aboard The Flounder "Where are the Words?" has been deleted despite its presence in the Overture and Exit Music. Another song heard in the Overture and Exit Music is one of the greater losses, Leslie Bricusse's magnificent "Something in Your Smile," used quite a bit by cabaret performers, and sung by a letter-writing Doctor Dolittle has been left to molder somewhere in the vaults of 20th Century Fox. (Incidentally, these cuts are NOT represented on the Original Soundtrack recording, available from Amazon.com).

This said, "Doctor Dolittle" is by no means a classic film, but has its gaggle of supporters. It makes for a nice evening of family-fared viewing, although younger children will lose interest quickly once the adult actors are center stage. The animal effects are not computer generated, so adolescent viewers will have very little frame-of-reference for the proceedings. Patient adults will find a wealth of things to like about "Doctor Dolittle," although the editor's scissors could have made several judicious cuts earlier in the film - - too much back story is given when musical numbers would have moved the film along at a brisker pace. Director Richard Fleischer, son of animation great Max Fleischer, would go on to better projects, most notably, the science fiction classic "Soylent Green," but 20th Century Fox would continue to produce over-budgeted musical films that failed (Hello! Dolly, STAR!) Before a little film called "Star Wars" would generate enough monies to take 20th Century Fox into the 21st Century.

All three leads are in good form here, Newley with his Streisandesque mannerisms, Harrison still relying on "talk-singing" to get through the songs, and the dubbed Samantha Eggar who looks lovely in the period costumes, and has enough spunk and fire in her portrayal of Emma to put Mary Richards to shame. Leslie Bricusse's song score, including the Oscar-winning "Talk to the Animals" is greater than his screenplay, and it is indeed sad to be missing two complete songs as well as a portion of another.

I have to commend FOX for making "Doctor Dolittle" available to a new generation of home viewing audiences, considering that the film is more well known for it's lackluster box-office than its undeniable assets. Now, if they'd only release those other "classics" that nearly killed the studio: Valley of the Dolls, Cleopatra (it's in the works), At Long Last Love, Hello,Dolly!, Star! as well as those that saved them: Star Wars (need I say more?)

(3/5, NOT included in final score)

(4/5)

(3.5/5)

(1/5)

(3.5/5, NOT an average)

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