Doctor Dolittle, a world famous veterinarian who can speak most known animal languages, sets off to find the legendary Great Pink Sea Snail. Along the way he engages in dialogue with the Pushmee-Pullyu and the Giant Moon Moth.
A hugely expensive (for its time) and overly lengthy family adventure based on Hugh Lofting’s treasured series of novels, that emerges, just, as an adequate genial diversion. With Rex Harrison lightly reworking his Professor Higgins routine from My Fair Lady as the upper-crust vet with a knack for animal linguistics, the film takes a leisurely tone of voice, relying on a procession of rather flat songs and good animatronics, as well as animal training, to carry it.
The wan, meandering storytelling hampers the escapist slant, while Harrison’s smoothness, not even stirring himself to vigour for the Oscar wining song, Talk To The Animals (as with playing Higgins, he talks his way through his songs rather like The Pet Shop Boys), is too distant to give the film a strong centrepiece.
Washed in Technicolor, the film is as bright as a button, but its lack of any great peril — it is a buoyant picaresque, globe trotting in search of rare species — leaving it a matter of whimsy rather than thrill. The biggest burden Dolittle faces is to raise the finance for is latest expedition – not the stuff of ripe drama. With Mary Poppins a recent hit, the idea clearly is a lighthearted not-to-say lightheaded parable of a man who understand animal and therefore is much more in-tune with what the world needs.
It’s a green dream, with songs and giddy children. And there is a mild appeal in watching Harrison’s deadpan boffin blow bubbles to converse with goldfish and invent eyeglasses for a myopic horse. Although, too many of the animal scenes revert to a chaotic slapstick as they try to cram as many furred and feathered friends into them as possible. The set must have smelled rotten.
Richard Fleischer was a consummate craftsman of big budget fantasy adventures after 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Fantastic Voyage, but is less sure how to combine his exotic style with a burlesque musical . Thankfully, by his next film, Planet Of The Apes, the monkeys spoke English.
Not even a decent performance from Richard Attenborough can save this disappointing production.