After a dismal opening weekend at the US box office and an 18% Totameter score on Rotten Tomatoes, the latest iteration of Dolittle starring Robert Downey, Jr. is expected to lose up to $100 million dollars.
I was far from interested in seeing this new version, but I had long heard the 1967 musical extravaganza was simply breathtaking in its insanity, so I took the opportunity to give that a look instead.
And readers, it did not disappoint.
I realized I was in for a treat about 30 minutes into the film’s 152-minute runtime, when I realized that two sequences and three songs in, there had yet to be a single moment of conflict in the film. There was only exposition, occasionally reiterating the same points over and over.
In a Victorian era seaside village, a character named Matthew (Anthony Newley) brings a child named Tommy (William Dix). who has a hurt duck, to see Dr. Dolittle (Rex Harrison). Matthew alleges that Dr. Dolittle, on top of being a great veterinarian, can in fact, speak to animals.
Matthew and Tommy have dinner and immediately move in with Dr. Dolittle despite the fact that they are purportedly not Dolittle’s husband and adopted son, although I have chosen to interpret them as such. No other reason is given.
Then they sing a handful of songs together that tell Dolittle’s backstory, which flashes back to extended sequences of mirthless pratfalls, and also a song that rhymes “veterinarian” with “vegetarian.” Still not one inkling of dramatic intent to be found.
Finally, after, I don’t know, the entire length of a brisk masterpiece like Casablanca, we get a whiff of plot! Dr. Dolittle wishes to find a mythical giant sea snail, the Great Pink Sea Snail. He needs money to embark on a voyage to find the Snail.
For reasons I did not understand because I was dissociating, Dolittle comes into possession of a two-headed llama. I did not rewind. He immediately capitalizes on the horrifying llama (it is played by two humans in a joint suit and has an uncanny expression on both of its faces) by selling it to the circus. It is never discussed that circuses were, and are, famously cruel towards its animal performers and thus, Dolittle is probably living against the grain of his profound, innate connection to the creatures.
One such performer at the circus is a seal named Sophie who misses her husband at the North Pole, so Dolittle dresses her in a bonnet and dress to smuggle her to the ocean. Such empathy he feels for all animals, except for the two-headed llama, which must dance in three shows a day to earn him riches that he will use to be a seafarer.
In the finest moment of the film, Dolittle sings a beautiful ballad with the seal in his arms on a cliff at sunset, kisses her on the mouth (??), and then chucks her over the cliff into the water. Remarkable.
I thought this plot point was a simple episodic diversion that would not be referenced again, but much to my surprise and delight, a local fisherman sees Dolittle and thinks he has thrown a woman into the ocean and accuses Dolittle of murder. Dolittle is arrested and put on trial.
During the trial, Dolittle is forced to reveal that he speaks to animals and was releasing a circus seal, so he is acquitted of the murder and committed to an insane asylum instead. At this point, it is intermission and there are still 63 minutes to go.
Obviously, Dolittle escapes in the very next scene (why should any stakes be felt longer than two minutes?), and he and his troupe set sail for a Sea-Star Island off the western coast of Africa, which they choose entirely at random. At this point, I turn my phone off airplane mode because I don’t know how else I will make it through the final hour without a second screen. I really thought my death was imminent.
The team arrives and their ship is destroyed in the process. They are captured by locals upon their landing, and they assume the tribe to be savages, only to discover that they have been Anglicized–the tribe leader is even named William Shakespeare. They share a laugh as I am sure white audiences at the time did as well. Racism overcome once and for all.
Then there are some plot machinations in which a whale pushes the island they’re on for some reason, and anyway, they eventually, miraculously happen upon the Great Pink Sea Snail! It has a cold so Dr. Dolittle cures him, and in the process, he determines the Snail’s shell is waterproof and can carry passengers! So his troupe of friends decide to return to England inside the shell. Dolittle has to stay though because he will otherwise be immediately condemned to the asylum again. He is doomed, never to return to his home in England.
Later, Sophie the Seal (!!) and her husband come to the island to tell Dolittle the animals are all on strike until he is allowed to return to England, which makes the government give him a pardon, so he flies away home on the wings of a Giant Luna Moth. I loved that Sophie returned for the finale of the film, but it made me wonder if the two-headed llama had broken its leg while dancing and was shot to put it out of its misery.
This film received nine Academy Award nominations and won two, for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song–even having just saw the film I do not know which song “Talk to the Animals” was, none of them were familiar.