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Dr Dolittle

20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 82 mins . PG . PAL


In 1967, 20th Century Fox poured massive amounts of money into a musical film based on Hugh Lofting’s famous Dr Dolittle stories, placing Rex Harrison in the title role and adding a set of songs penned by the legendary Leslie Bricusse (one, Talk To The Animals, scoring an Oscar). Thirty years on, that film is still spoken about in awed terms as a project that very nearly sunk Fox, a film that very few people have kind things to say about.

Seeing the 1967 film as a child, though - it was for years a TV staple - I was entranced. The concept of being able to hold conversations with animals is one that has always held wide appeal for children, and while the studio may have spent a fortune shooting the film in 70mm and presenting it in the lavish two-part style of the day, for kids it worked just as well on the small screen.

Eddie Murphy’s take on Dr Dolittle - notably not based on the previous film, but once again on the stories themselves - is a very different prospect. For starters, there are no songs (though a recording of Talk To The Animals does make a brief appearance). Murphy’s Dolittle is a man who once conversed with animals as a child, but has since forgotten about his gift and turned into a highly successful, career-obsessed MD with little time for his long-suffering (and nauseatingly pre-fab) family. But an incident in which he almost runs down a dog in his car somehow (we are never really sure) returns the gift of animal gab to the good Doctor, and what follows is fairly expected. He’s considered insane by most, but the animals just won’t let him get on with his old life now they know he has “the gift”.

The extremely short running time of the film is remarkable if only because it still feels overlong - this can be blamed squarely on the script, credited to two writers but bearing all the stylistic hallmarks of many, many rewrites and some extremely harsh editing. There’s very little plot, and what little is there is predictable and often puzzling. You want rich, likeable characters? This is not your film. Murphy plays the role reasonably straight - save for some out-of-place anal humour which kids are sure to find a hoot - and leaves the comedy largely to the animal cast.

And what a cast! Created both by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and a huge team of computer effects companies, the animals in this version of Dolittle make the entire thing worthwhile. Mostly voiced by rather famous people, the various animals are often so lifelike that it’s easy to forget that they aren’t carefully trained creatures of nature, but rather carefully constructed artificial creations. Their jokes aren’t always funny - and some, like the ever-present Guinea Pig, are downright annoying - but there’s enough left-of-centre humour and ooh-ahh effects work here to keep things entertaining. Most of the animals completely upstage Murphy in every scene they share, but then, Murphy as a straight man has never been that compelling a proposition (see the awful Harlem Nights for a good example!)

Kids will get a lot more out of this film than adults, who will find the saccharine script and constant cuteness annoying but can at least marvel at the visuals.

It’s remarkable that this revisiting of Dr Dolittle comes from 20th Century Fox, the same studio that was hit so hard by the expensive original. This time around, though, things must have worked out better - a sequel, also starring Murphy, is already in production.


Fox have delivered a reasonable transfer for the DVD release of the film, though it’s not quite up there with the best of the best - especially considering the recent vintage of the source material. Generally crisp and clear, the transfer suffers slightly in the film’s more brightly lit scenes, particularly those set outdoors. In these scenes, colour seems desaturated and everything takes on a flat appearance, looking more like a well-transferred TV show than a multi-million-dollar feature film. Darker scenes and material shot on sound stages looks much better, and there’s plenty of shadow detail where it’s needed. The film’s generally “soft” look may well have been a deliberate decision on the part of cinematographer Russell Boyd (who is, incidentally, an Australian), possibly an attempt to give the film a brighter look for its intended audience. There is some isolated picture wobble on a couple of occasions; its confinement to individual shots implies a camera problem rather than a problem at the telecine stage.

The short run time of the film means that it fits comfortably onto a single-layered DVD with no visible MPEG encoding problems save for some very minor aliasing on rare occasions. Fans of the film should be perfectly happy with this transfer, but they won’t be gobsmacked.


A perfectly serviceable audio track in 5.1 Dolby Digital, the sole soundtrack on this disc is largely dialogue-based and therefore not exactly demonstration material. It’s encoded at the lower bitrate of 384Kbps, which does become apparent during the film’s occasional very loud bursts of R&B music on the soundtrack - and this (extremely inappropriate) music, mixed with heavy surround activity, sounds dreadful when downmixed to 2.0 surround, happily phasing and flanging at super-high volume.

Dialogue and effects are clean and crisp, which is all that’s required for a film of this type.


Surprisingly for such a high-profile, high-tech release, there’s nothing here in the way of extras save for a solitary theatrical trailer, presented full-frame and in near-perfect condition. The trailer is notable for containing a few scenes that aren’t in the final cut of the film itself. Aside from that, only the animated main menu (with audio) is there to satiate DVD fans.


Go into Dr Dolittle expecting the worst and you’ll end up enjoying the movie despite yourself - but don’t expect anything deep, and don’t hope for classic Eddie Murphy comedy. There’s a lot here that’s great fun, but at the end of the day the kids will get a lot more out of this parade of digital cleverness than adults will. The absence of extra material - especially background information on the remarkable effects - means this one is probably only a rental for most, though Murphy completists and those with TV-bonded children might well find this to be $35 well spent.

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