Doctor Dolittle (1967)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Doctor Dolittle</strong> (1967)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) The original 1967 Doctor Dolittle is a landmark in movie history for all the wrong reasons. It was a big expansive musical at a time when American cinema was shifting away from such films, it had a famously troubled production with a fuzzy script and a temperamental star; it was such a bomb that it nearly took down its producing studio 20th Century Fox; and its studio-bought nomination as Best Picture at the 1968 Academy Awards is risible considering that it ran against such acclaimed classics as In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. [May 2019: For more on the making of Doctor Dolittle and the way 1967 changed movies forever, I heartily recommend Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution]. As a result, the film itself feels much smaller than its own reputation. It’s certainly not the awful movie that its troubled production history would suggest. A lighthearted adventure/comedy/musical featuring a protagonist with the ability to speak to animals and a fantastic menagerie of imaginary beasts, Doctor Dolittle can be watched without undue hardship. It benefits from an unflappable performance by Rex Harrison, imaginative creations, a large budget that shows up on-screen, a pleasant atmosphere and numerous side-gag one-liners. The scenery changes often (see: large budget) and the special effects aren’t as dated as one would expect. Animal-lovers will find it more amusing than most (I saw much of the movie with a cat on my lap). For all of the flak it took, the film left enough of an impression to be remade once (with a second one coming in early 2020) and gain a bit of a nostalgic following. Still, watching today, Doctor Dolittle remains disappointing. The imaginary animals aren’t all endearing, the tunes aren’t particularly catchy and the conclusion seems rushed after the uneven pacing of the rest of the film. There are clear signs that the film was harmed by its overly narrow focus on Harrison, and the entire thing feels underwhelming considering the production’s lavish means. “Better than expected” is no substitute for a film enjoyable on its own, and perhaps the best thing one can say about Doctor Dolittle is that it remains essential viewing for understanding why Hollywood had to change by the late 1960s—it exemplifies the worst of the old studio system, and the limits of what it could do at its best.

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