Perhaps They Thought It Was The Beast Picture Of the Year...
I've had people try to convince me that Doctor Dolittle, the musical bomb that almost inexplicably received a Best Picture nomination in 1967 (over such films as The Dirty Dozen, Cool Hand Luke, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and To Sir, With Love) is some delightful children's romp. Perhaps very, very small children will enjoy it. However, after trudging through Doctor Dolittle TWICE I find it all so horrifying and horrible, a long slog of a film about finding a snail, which is fitting since the film moves at a snail's pace.
Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) takes his young friend Tommy Stubbs (William Dix) to see his fantastical friend, Doctor Dolittle (Rex Harrison). The good doctor is a veterinarian, and not just any 'animal doctor'. He is one who can quite literally Talk to the Animals, speaking their languages to find their illnesses. His one goal (apparently) is to find the Great Pink Sea Snail and talk to it (though the screenplay never bothers to answer how he found out said creature or why he would want to do that).
As a friend to all non-humans, the doctor hates hunting, which is how he meets the beautiful Emma (Samantha Eggar), whom Matt constantly calls "Fred" (I'm sure there was a reason but I might have dozed off when it was given). She at first dislike Dolittle for his brusque manner with people, but over time (and several songs) finds she likes him (and apparently Matt too). A gift from a Lama OF a llama, a two-headed one called a Pushmi-pullyu allows the doctor and his companions (now THERE'S a thought) to make money by taking him to Blossom's Circus, where Blossom himself (Richard Attenborough, or Sir Dickie to me) can exhibit him.
Eventually, after getting locked up for insanity (after being acquitted of murder when the seal he had rescued and tossed from a cliff to throw it in the sea had been mistaken for a woman), he manages to escape and takes to sea, where Emma picks through luck Sea-Star Island, a floating island that is sailing about. They do find it, and the leader, William Shakespeare the Tenth (Geoffrey Holder) at first is about to have them executed until Sea-Star Island finds that it fits into a tiny sliver of Africa perfectly and has them saved. The Great Pink Sea Snail does eventually come around, but while at first the doctor plans to stay on the island (upsetting the lovelorn Emma), he decides to return to his home of Puddleby-by-the-Marsh when he learns all of England's animals are on strike until Doctor Dolittle is absolved, and he returns by air, on the wings of the Giant Lunar Moth.
Somehow, I find it fitting that Doctor Dolittle is about animals, given that the film is a gigantic turkey. At two-and-a-half hours long, it is amazing that a movie of that massive length has no real story to tell. We're told that his great goal is to find the Great Pink Sea Snail (one of the cheapest-looking props in film history), but WHY does he want to talk to it? Furthermore, a lot of time is wasted on things that have nothing to do with his ultimate goal (like a barrage of songs that seem to be there just to be there).
Structurally, the film is a mess. The story is stagnant to the point of inertia and I'll be honest: more than once was I forced to rewind it because I had nodded off during the film. Plot points and characters pretty much come and go as you please. Take Sir Dickie, someone who with a few exceptions (Jurassic Park, The Great Escape, and Elizabeth), I have always found to be less talented than press insists. First, I found his entire Blossom sequence appallingly bad (and him too, for Sir Dickie's forte is not being a song-and-dance man). Second, despite the fact that his seal was basically abducted by the doctor, he just disappears from the film altogether.
Then one wonders about Emma. For most of the film I thought she and Matt were falling in love (and sang a few songs stating as such). Then at the end, it was Doctor Dolittle she had fallen for! Seriously?
Perhaps the length could have been forgiven, but what is galling is that almost all the songs are both forgettable and some even just bad, bad, bad. Apart from Talk to the Animals (about the only good song in Doctor Dolittle), can ANYONE really remember any of the massive (but cheap-looking) musical numbers? One supposedly BIG number (Sir Dickie's I've Never Seen Anything Like It) to me looked cheap and unenthusiastic. Perhaps the lowest point is When I Look in Your Eyes, which if I'm not mistaken is Professor Higgins singing a love song to a seal.
I have a rule about people trying the same thing twice. That rule? It doesn't work. Harrison managed to get away with being a non-musical performer in a musical (My Fair Lady) by 'talking on pitch' rather than actually singing. Here, he tries it again but the fact that he isn't singing (and that he might have well have just called himself Doctor Higgins) comes through. He also didn't have Lerner & Lowe's genius to mask his flaws in the musical department. Eggar is in turns obnoxious and vapid as Emma/Fred, and Newley I think did what he could, trying to make his Irish rascal into a witty charmer. About the only one who saves himself from embarrassment is Holder, who would make a far more fascinating subject of the film as Willy, the wise leader of a floating island whose kingdom drives visitors crazy with its peace and culture.
Director Richard Fleischer I think had no interest in the subject, and I judge this by the staging of the musical numbers and non-musical numbers too. In the latter, the 'comedy' bits were forced and labored, with no life or joy and certainly not flowing naturally but obviously hammered in. In the latter, they had no life to them and worse, more focus was paid to the admittedly lush cinematography than to the performers. More than once were the singers barely visible, little specks lost in a sea of vast vistas.
Perhaps this is the perfect symbolism for Doctor Dolittle as a film: a massive production that shrank the charm it might have had if it had been scaled down. There were a few moments of wit (Polynesia, Dolittle's parrot, tells him in flashback that she speaks Dodo and Unicorn, explaining she had 'a classical education'), but when a bird manages to out-act a notoriously prickly thespian (in more ways than one) like Harrison (who followed up his Oscar win by singing a love ballad to a seal), we've got problems.
Doctor Dolittle is a simply horrible film, and it's Best Picture nomination stands as a permanent monument to the Academy's failures to not be influenced by shrewd wining-and-dining campaigns. So great was the outrage over its nomination that studios could no longer attempt to pass off their big-budget busts to the Academy in HOPES of financial recovery. Thanks to the bad doctor, musical films were on the way out, and they have never fully recovered.