Doctor Dolittle

Doctor Dolittle (1967)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, Richard Attenborough
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

Sporting a gorgeous transfer, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s new DVD release of the 1967 musical "Doctor Dolittle" indeed rekindles childhood memories of an imagination fired by visions of a two-headed dancing llama or casual conversations with a whale. While the film suffers from a creaky script and a sometimes-unsteady hand in creating a fantasy atmosphere, watching the film for the first time in years reminded me of how maybe we have lost something of our national innocence.

The 1960s were a time of great upheaval and change. Everything once held sacred underwent re-examination, sometimes the scrutiny so merciless that seemingly nothing escaped the era’s dissecting gaze. The made-for-the-screen musical, a once vital fixture of the moviegoing landscape, gurgled its last during this period. The end of the turbulent decade saw a flurry of high-ticket, equally bloated musicals released as a last ditch attempt to save the genre. Titles like "The Happiest Millionaire," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," (there’s that one again!), "Oliver!" (winning the Best Picture Oscar in 1968) and "Doctor Dolittle" touted huge sets, big stars and expansive song scores (not to mention average running times of 2 1/2 hours!). In the end, critics declared the form DOA (with a few sprinklings here and there until Disney revived the format by fusing it with the animated feature in the late 80s).

"Doctor Dolittle" is the musical adaptation of the Hugh Lofting children’s books about a Victorian veterinarian, Doctor John Dolittle, whose practice is aided by his ability to converse with animals in their respective tongues. Starring Rex Harrison and directed by Richard Fleischer (of "Fantastic Voyage" fame), the rather long narrative involves the Doctor’s quest for the Great Pink Sea Snail. Accompanying the doctor in his adventures is friend and fishmonger Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley), young Tommy Stubbins (William Dix) and prim Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar). Along the way, the good doctor faces a host of obstacles including storms at sea, floating islands, jail (!) and, yes, the affairs of the heart.

The problem with "Dolittle" is really one of proportion. Everything about it is either too fat or too lean. Rex Harrison, no doubt hired to capitalize on his success as Henry Higgins, is the physical antithesis of Lofting’s hero, depicted in the book illustrations as short and stout. Maybe the studio felt that with Harrison they had another "My Fair Lady" on their hands ("My Fair Llama?" "Pigmalion"?) The songs by Leslie Bricusse are actually quite catchy with clever lyrics for such ditties as the Oscar-winning "Talk to the Animals," The Vegetarian" or "Like Animals." Anthony Newley, sometimes writing partner of Bricusse, sways from an overload of cutesy blarney to enriching the haunting "Beautiful Things" with his signature vocal styling.

The threadbare script, also by Bricusse, does not justify the film’s length. The musical interludes sometimes run far too long ("My Friend the Doctor" is a good example) or just stall the narrative, as is the case with the "Doctor Dolittle" number occurring late in the film. Apparently the film underwent editing after its premiere, removing two entire musical numbers. Could have used a little more trimming. On the plus side, the film does have a certain whimsy at times and when the musical numbers work, they are on target. Indeed, the bright spot in the film is Richard Attenborough’s ebullient turn as circus proprietor Blossom. Prancing and leaping all over the frame during "I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It," his vigor and that of the segment itself represent the film’s only real burst of energy. Still, the fancy of a world where animals are as polite and well mannered (read: British) as the doctor treating them is an enticing dream. Indeed, one certainly not lost on its filmmakers and probably the sole reason that the film, warts and all, has survived the past 33 years.

I still have the <$PS,widescreen> laserdisc released in 1992, which I thought looked pretty good for its day. Except for keeping the disc jacket for the liner notes (which Fox should have included here), the LD is a total wash compared to the DVD. Borrowing a phrase from the movie, I’ve never seen anything like it. First, Fox is to be commended heartily for releasing the title in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>. We’ve heard the argument before: "Children’s films don’t need to be <$PS,letterboxed>." I’m glad to see that Fox feels otherwise. The video is nothing short of sparkling perfection. I knew I was in the presence of a transfer made with care while watching the first scene (Chapter 3). Aliasing plagued the LD in the opening shots, with the lines of the rooftops shimmying as if caught in an earthquake. On the DVD, the image is sharp, clean and stable. Deep black levels bring out colors assuredly, whether the warm browns of the doctor’s study/menagerie or the candied hues of Blossom’s circus tent. Fleshtones are remarkably natural looking for so Hollywood a production. The source seems to be either a brand new inter-positive or the negative itself as there are no blemishes or even film grain, with no detectable no digital or compression artifacts.

A four channel discrete soundtrack is offered as well as a two-channel <$DS,Dolby Surround> track. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> discrete audio displays a wide front soundstage and during the more elaborate orchestral passages absolutely fills the room with music. For its age, the soundtrack plays admirably, with a low noise floor if lacking a bit in low-end energy. The Dolby Surround track returns some of the punch but at the expense of collapsing the soundfield into the center channel. A French-language mono track is also available on this DVD.

Not many extras here. A theatrical trailer demonstrates how the main marketing point was Harrison’s presence. The trailer is in <$PS,widescreen>, but the colors are a little blanched and the sound overmodulates during the louder moments. One plus to adding the trailer, however, is glimpsing those precious seconds of scenes ultimately excised from the final print.

I count myself a fan of the film, despite my caveats. I doubt we will ever see "Doctor Dolittle" look as captivating or as inviting as Fox Home Video’s new DVD rendition. For enthusiasts with kids, have them put down their PlayStation 2 for a few hours and watch something gentle for a change. For the rest of us, it’s a pleasant reminder of a time when we wanted to be the stately fellow riding the giraffe and tipping our stovepipe hat to passersby.