If there is one film that particularly stands out amongst a field of Best Picture contenders which ranges from the explicitly violent to the socially challenging, it is Richard Fleischer’s Doctor Dolittle. An epic comedy musical not far removed from the heels of 1965’s The Sound of Music, it isn’t, sadly, that the film stands out in its difference of ambition amongst its counterparts, rather it stands out in its lack of ambition.
The title character is taken from the series of children’s books by Hugh Lofting, an eccentric and gentlemanly doctor (Rex Harrison) who specialises in animals thanks to his unique gift of being able to converse with them. He reserves his medical skills for all non-human kinds, having educated himself, along with his parrot Polynesia, in 499 animal dialects as he surrounds himself with a plethora of creatures ranging from ducks to chimps, cheetahs to dogs, with larrikin friend Matthew and a young boy Tommy (Anthony Newely and William Dix) rounding out his inner circle. But however enchanting a notion on paper, the film is ultimately unable to capitalise on the whimsy inherent in its premise, the picture proving as removed from its audience as the protagonist is from human kind.
Doctor Dolittle’s latest fixation is to take to the sea and track down the legendary Great Pink Sea Snail, but not before overcoming Magistrate General Bellowes (Peter Bull) who has vowed to have the doctor arrested after he found him housing his horse. Alienation is not uncommon for the doctor. Once a physician of promise, Dolittle explains early on he grew so attached to the animals at his house where he practiced that he was eventually abandoned by his sister and all patients.
There is an inherent sadness in the Dolittle character, a man who confides in his animals due to his inability to have empathy for his fellow man. As Dolittle informs the courtroom of the Magistrate who seeks to have him put away, it is humans that are animals, all other beings provide the only reprieve in life for the title character. He is removed from humankind, an isolated and misunderstood, however good natured, person, but Fleischer and screenwriter Leslie Bricusse are never willing to more than fleetingly discuss these complexities. The film doesn’t so much as scratch the surface of these ideas as it does glance at them before shying away, never attempting to craft sympathy or install charm in its players, unlike the seminal 60’s musical The Sound of Music. Instead Fleischer opts to have his film meander through the motions at a Great Pink Sea Snail’s pace.
The introduction of the Magistrate’s niece, Emma Fairfax (played by Smantha Eggar) looks to be a way to tease some humanity out of the central character, their initially rocky relationship building slowly to a friendship, however the film again resorts to a series of disparate dramatic sequences, sheltered under the veneer of beautifully vibrant sets, well captured by photographer Robert Surtees (a precursor to his brilliant work on The Graduate), and a series of indiscernible songs, save for Talk to the Animals.
The performances are all fine, and the film isn’t devoid of laughs, Anthony Newely is particularly funny as the straight shooting, simpleton sidekick to Dolittle, and certain slapstick visuals such as a patient having his outrageously bandaged foot crushed three times in twenty seconds and Dolittle providing a horse with an oversized pair of glasses to remedy his poor eyesight, should at least coax a smirk, but in the end the audience is never offered any reason to immerse themselves in the story. Each minor crisis that presents itself is resolved innocuously and swiftly with nothing ever at stake.
With Richard Attenborough and Geoffrey Holder rounding out the supporting cast the film disappointingly can’t make the most of its tools. The picture never can get beyond the superficial with its characters, its benignity and vibrancy never enough to justify its two and a half hour run time.