Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Doctor Dolittle (1967)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox

Get ready for the wildest adventure of a lifetime in the most ambitious musical production ever brought to film. Earning a 1967 Academy Award nomination for best Picture, this dazzling fantasy turns both ordinary and exotic animals into talking, dancing and singing sensation! Rex Harrison is unforgettable in this inspiring adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s classic stories.

Step into the English country home of the good doctor as he performs remarkable treatments on the wildest variety of patients you could imagine. Discover his secret cures and watch with wide-eyed excitement as he and his four-legged, fine-feathered friends charm their way into your heart!

Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, Richard Attenborough, Peter Bull, William Dix, Geoffrey Holder
Academy Awards: Won for Best Special Effects; Best Song-"Talk to the Animals". Nominated for Best Picture; Best Cinematography; Best Adaptation; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Original Music Score, 1968.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 4.0 & Digital Stereo, French Digital Mono; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; Not Rated; 151 min.; $29.98; street date 10/31/00.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle - Hugh Lofting | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/B/D-

At the start of 2001, I find myself in a state of mental disarray - even more so than usual! One question puzzles me. Which of these scenarios seems more fantastic: the concept of a man who can speak to the animals, or the notion that Rex Harrison could star in movie musicals? Frankly, I’m going with the latter; I don’t know what the producers of My Fair Lady and Doctor Dolittle were smoking when they cast Harrison in singing roles, but I want to get some of that stuff!

Actually, despite his miserable speak-singing efforts as a vocalist, Harrison still worked well in these films just because of his personality. Although he was probably too old for the role, I really liked his brusque portrayal of Professor Henry Higgins in MFL, and he’s almost as compelling as the title character in Doctor Dolittle.

Unfortunately, the movie itself isn’t nearly as good as the Oscar-winning MFL. As a whole, DD offers a generally interesting time but - as with many musicals - it suffers from an excessively-long running time weighed down by a number of lame songs.

Not all of the songs are clunkers, as “Talk to the Animals” remains a beloved classic. After that the tunes take a quick turn for the worse. Okay, I kind of liked the number about Dolittle’s vegetarianism, but that was about it; I can’t think of another number that did anything for me.

However, one must recall that I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of movie musicals, so DD should probably be viewed on its other merits. The film tells the tale of British Dr. John Dolittle, a former “people doctor” who changed to a veterinary practice a) because he really prefers animals to people, and b) he developed a talent for communicating with all the beasties. Frankly, Dolittle isn’t very far removed from Higgins; he’s more introverted and less obnoxious, but both are linguists at heart and they both have trouble dealing with people - especially of the female variety.

Despite Dolittle’s lack of affection for people, the film gives him a few human companions. Most consistent are Irish lunk Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) and little Tommy Stubbins (William Dix). These two exist mainly to give Dolittle some humans with whom to interact; they offer little personality or depth and the movie probably would have been better off without them since they don’t contrast with the doctor in any significant way.

Theoretically more compelling is another human role, that of lovely Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar). As with Eliza Doolittle (no relation) in MFL, she initially loathes Harrison’ character but eventually comes to care for him. Actually, she’s just there as a possible love interest, and a weird one at that. For much of the film, it looks like Emma and Mugg will couple, but that never happens. Instead, the movie posits that Emma and the doctor will eventually pair up with each other. That’s pushing it. Had Emma and Mugg united, at least that would have given Newley’s character a reason for existing. As it stands, he becomes pointless, and the Emma/Dolittle relationship gets to be creepy. It seemed iffy enough to link Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in MFL considering the 21 year age difference between the two, but Eggar is even younger, there’s a 31 year discrepancy between her and Harrison! Age doesn’t mean everything, but that factor made the potential romantic aspects rather questionable.

While DD seemed mildly entertaining, I would have enjoyed it more had it concentrated on the animals. There’s too much dancing and prancing and not enough communicating with the critters. After all, that’s the flick’s main selling point, but we find precious little of Dolittle as he interacts with his patients. For better or for worse, at least 1998’s version of Doctor Dolittle gave the audience lots of animals, which meant that it seemed more fully satisfying.

Speaking of that Eddie Murphy hit, has there ever been an ostensible remake that less resembled the original? All that the two share is their titles, animals, and their main character’s ability to communicate with the latter. Even that point is staged differently. Although the 1967 film lives in a world of fantasy, the doctor’s skill comes from study, not magic; he has to learn to speak to the critters. On the other hand, Murphy’s doc just gets the gift of gab through no effort, while the rest of the movie is based in reality. The two are tremendously different flicks.

While many may disagree, I prefer the Murphy vehicle. It was somewhat lame, but at least it had a fair number of funny moments; Murphy is a hit-or-miss actor, but he’s enjoying a nice career renaissance in recent years. The 1967 Doctor Dolittle features a potentially-interesting story but suffers from some pointless characters and an excessive running time. The movie remained generally watchable but often lapsed into dullness. Too much romance, not enough critters!

Stunning realization: Dolittle was nominated for a whopping nine Oscars in its day! Actually, most of these weren't that surprising, since the majority of them fell in the music, production design or effects categories. However, I was absolutely shocked to see Dolittle in the Best Picture category. That year's chart provided the ultimate game of "Which doesn't belong", which you can see when you inspect the film's competitors. In addition to winner In the Heat of the Night, Dolittle squared off against The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Bonnie and Clyde.

1967's Oscar crop may offer the highest percentage of flicks that made it to the AFI's Top 100 Films list, as those last three all can be found on that chart, which accounts for 60 percent of the nominees. 1939 has the most BP nominees on the AFI page, since five of those flicks - Stagecoach, The Wizard Of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and winner Gone With the Wind - qualified for the big list. However, in those days there were ten nominees for BP, so the 1939 titles stand at 50 percent. If only five had been nominated, would this have lowered or raised the percentage? I have no idea, but I'm still stunned that anyone though Dolittle was worthy of a Best Picture nod.

The DVD:

Doctor Dolittle appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. When I watched this film, the first word that came to my mind was “wow!” Actually, the second, third, and pretty all of the other words that came to my mind were “wow!” as this DVD offers an absolutely sumptuous picture.

DD would look good if it came out in 2000; how in the world a film from 1967 presented such an amazing image is beyond me. Sharpness appeared consistently crisp and detailed throughout the film. Never did I discern any hints of soft or fuzzy material, as the movie stayed detailed and accurate at all times. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no substantial concerns, and I saw few artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. I also detected exceedingly few print flaws. I witnessed a smidgen of grit and a nick or two but that was it; never did I find any more significant problems like grain, tears, blotches, hairs or other defects. It’s an amazingly clean and vibrant picture.

Some interior shots looked a bit brown, but that seemed due to the film’s production design. When DD displayed brighter colors, they looked amazingly vivid and bold. Not surprisingly, the movie offered a nicely-varied palette, and all of these hues seemed wonderfully well-reproduced. Black levels were deep and rich, and shadow detail appeared clear and appropriately opaque. Both Doctor Dolittle and I are the same age, but I wish I could look half as good; this is a simply fantastic image.

While the film’s four-channel soundtrack doesn’t equal the heights of its picture, I nonetheless found it to provide a satisfying auditory experience. Not surprisingly, the soundfield mainly stuck to the forward channels. In the front I heard dated but solid stereo separation for the music, and effects seemed to spread nicely across the spectrum. Placement of audio appeared forced and a bit too “speaker specific”, but the sounds blended acceptably and even demonstrated some decent panning at times. The surrounds generally presented light reinforcement of the score, though they also could kick in with some effects; for example, the rears added a nice layer of sound when thunder reverberated.

Audio quality was similarly dated but it seemed very acceptable. Dialogue sounded somewhat thin but was fairly distinct and accurate without edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects also lacked dynamics but they seemed clear and clean and didn’t show signs of distortion. Music presented modest bass but generally resembled the tones heard in the other components; the score and songs were adequately well-defined but they didn’t show much dimensionality. As a soundtrack for a 33-year-old movie, this mix held up well; it won’t make you forget more modern efforts but it complemented the material nicely.

The only true disappointment on this DVD relates to its extras. All we find is the original theatrical trailer for Doctor Dolittle. No more substantial materials can be found.

As a whole, Doctor Dolittle presented a modestly entertaining fable, but I felt it missed a lot of opportunities to excel. The film concentrated too strongly on the same old romance and songs and didn’t focus enough on the aspect that made it unique: the animals. As such, it amused me in spurts but lacked much consistent depth. The DVD presents an absolutely stellar picture with dated but relatively positive sound; it only flops when we examine its dearth of supplements.

Although I was tremendously impressed by the presentation of the film, I can’t offer a strong recommendation of Doctor Dolittle due to its lack of extras and its somewhat boring execution. However, if you’re a fan of the genre or the subject, you’ll undoubtedly be very happy with this disc; I doubt the movie has ever looked or sounded quite so good.

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