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Hoping to push Britain to the forefront of aviation, a London publisher organizes an international air race across the English Channel, but must contend with two entrants vying for his daughter, as well as national rivalries and cheating.
Dr. John Dolittle lives in a small English village where he specializes in caring for and verbally communicating with animals. When Dr. Dolittle is unjustly sent to an insane asylum for freeing a lovesick seal from captivity, his animals and two closest human friends, Matthew Mugg and Tommy Stubbins, liberate him. Afterward, they join Emma Fairfax and set out by boat to find a famed and elusive creature: the Great Pink Sea Snail.Written by
I know it goes against the general tide to praise this film (the only other place I've ever read a really positive review of it being the back of its own video cover), but I'm going to do it--and I'll even attach my name! For, in my opinion, this musical adaptation by Leslie Bricusse of Hugh Lofting's delightful "Doctor Dolittle" series succeeds in a great many respects. I was enchanted as a child when I saw it in the cinema, and I still enjoy watching it on video with my own children.
The admittedly meandering plot combines elements from various of the Dolittle books, but it essentially concerns the Victorian veterinarian's quest for the Great Pink Sea Snail, an animal whose language he hopes to add to the thousands he has already learned. Thus the first part of the movie takes Dolittle and his friends through several adventures on their way to earning the money to make the journey, while the second finds the entourage actually setting sail (on the aptly-named "Flounder") for Sea Star Island and their goal. And, even if the musical *is* so front-end-loaded with big numbers that the second half seems anticlimactic, and even if the resolution of the plot's final conflict *is* jarringly abrupt, and even if the film's direction *is* a tad slow, it is *also* the case that I find more than enough pleasures along the way to compensate for these shortcomings.
One is Bricusse's marvelous score. Besides the Academy Award-winning "Talk to the Animals," he includes two other showcase pieces for star Rex Harrison's trademark "powerful patter" delivery, the humorous "Vegetarian" and the impassioned "Like Animals." Other up-tempo winners are "I've Never Seen Anything Like It" (brilliantly put across by Richard Attenborough--the twinkle never leaves his eye!--in what amounts to an extended cameo as wily circus-master Albert Blossom) and "Faraway Places," while tender ballads "When I look in Your Eyes" and "Beautiful Things" are very affecting. And if "After Today" seems to have been pulled from the trunk of another show by mistake, the other Anthony Newly numbers--including "My Friend the Doctor" and "This is the World of Doctor Dolittle" (as well as the lovely "Where are the Words," which is on my soundtrack album but not in the video)--are spot on.
Another pleasure is the cast. As the Doctor, Harrison is wonderful, of course. The film was originally conceived as a reunion project for him and composing team Lerner & Lowe, who'd written "My Fair Lady," and it's clear that the part was written for the star. But I'm impressed that eventual Lerner & Lowe stand-in Bricusse, though he was obviously influenced by "My Fair Lady," resisted what had to be the temptation to turn the main character into Henry Higgins--and that Harrison also didn't see the gig as a mere Higgins reprise. The charming Doctor--kind to animals, children, and people from all walks of life; educated and capable but somehow sweetly clueless at the same time; gentle but rousable to anger on behalf of his charges--is a different character, and Harrison gets him right.
As for the other leads, Anthony Newly, for once, is perfect as the elfin Matthew Mugg, while child actor and "whatever-happened-to" candidate William Dix is a fine if underused Tommy Stubbins. Even Samantha Eggar, in the mis-conceived role of a tentative love-interest for Dolittle, does well with the part she's been given. And strong support is provided by the aforementioned Attenborough, Peter Bull as the beefy English squire who is the closest thing to a villain in this piece, and Geoffrey Holder as Willie Shakespeare, head of a quirkily-PC group of island natives encountered during the voyage.
Finally, there's the appearance of the film: it's beautiful. If you find you can't enjoy a musical unless it's shot on a soundstage, the wide-open spaces won't work for you, but I loved all the wonderful locations.
This is a big movie, long and theatrically-structured (Overture, Act I, Entr'acte, Act II, and even Exit Music!). They don't make them like this anymore--which sounds like a straight line, but I mean it in a regretful way. :-) I recommend "Doctor Dolittle" heartily, and I think the family will enjoy it even more if, before you watch it, you read a couple of the original Dolittle books together first!
[P.S.-- don't be put off this film if you didn't happen to like the similarly-titled 1998 Eddie Murphy vehicle which billed itself as a remake. They're completely different!]
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