My Voyages with Doctor Dolittle

The [new] world of Doctor Dolittle:

Do they give awards for trailer editing? This one was done really well, it revealed nothing, didn’t give all the best parts, and even kept some things unknown. At least the first one did, I didn’t see the official second trailer until I was putting together media for this post.

Fresh off of seeing Dolittle (2020) for the second time last week, I thought I’d sit down and map out why this movie that is getting irreparably panned by critics now means so much to me.

Now Showing

The movie was a lot of fun and I am not sure what people expect movies to be these days, but paying your money and forgetting about the world outside for 140 minutes in adventure and fantasy is what I always thought they were about. Maybe it is because I don’t go to the movies a lot, I dunno. Even living in town where there are multiple theatres a couple miles away I don’t go. I don’t go see things just to go to the movies. I thought I had been recently (like two years) but realized as I was comparing ticket stubs in the cigar box I keep them in that the last time was 2016.

The traveling Dolittle menagerie

I loved the movie, and I’ll probably try to go see it one more time in theatres before it leaves, and multiple viewings in theatres is something I very rarely do. I think the last time was Watchmen. Looking through some of the terrible reviews for this movie, I am beginning to think more and more it was doomed to fail from the beginning. I have read it was cursed with reshoots and off scheduling (April 19 to May 19, to January 2020), only to be released on MLK weekend opposite Bad Boys 26 (which from all the old jokes in the trailers for it, it could be called Bad Boys: Lethal Weapon but with two black guys). Can we at least appreciate the centenary link with the first book being published in 1920?

11th printing of the first edition of The Story of Doctor Dolittle (1920)

I wonder if the books play here in any way. I read them all when I was a kid, checked out from out elementary school library. Many of them were the older versions which contained many racial insensitivities that were later expunged in the late 1980s republications. There is a whole post’s worth of stuff relating to that and the craziness around the 1967 film release that I will try to sum up near the end here, so maybe that’s just the hand the franchise has been dealt over the last 100 years.

Even though Chi-chi is a gorilla and not a chimpanzee, it works

I grew up on a farm, but we weren’t farmers. Both my father and grandfather worked an hour’s drive at GoodYear, but we had horses, cows, chickens, pigs, gardens, goats, and just about anything else at one time or another. It was on a dirt road and what few neighbors I had were mostly all adults and I only interacted with kids my age at school. I was, most assuredly around animals more than people. The Dolittle books  were my escape as a kid and even then I never saw myself as Stubbins, but the title character. What hit me most with Dolittle 2020 was from the trailer on the cinematography captured what I saw in my head when I read these books. It looked right to me.

Dolittle animals at home

If you’ve never read the books, you should give them a go, they’ve been released as treasury collections over the years, and most recently as a full collections all hardbound in a slipcase. There is a recommended reading order of sorts, but since the stories started out as letters home from WWI, the internal timing is all over the place, and you can pick one up and start as good as any other. They are more episodic than the chronologies we’ve come to experience in literature on the screen, something which I think either the critics did nor realize or hated, or both.

Dolittle Complete Collection 2019

One of the better turns back toward the source material is Dolittle talks to the animals in their own languages. An ability that has learned and can eventually teach others, it isn’t a “gift” that manifested itself in some mutant ability sort of way that is passed down to his children a la the 1998 Eddie Murphy version which led to I think a total of five films. This film also moves in and out of that at times every so briefly so you can see things from the point of view of those who cannot talk to the animals.

Robert Downey, Jr.’s patented Chaplin hat flip.

Robert Downey, Jr. is an amazing actor. He is brilliant as Tony Stark, but I find him even better when he is in eccentric, twitchy mode as his Sherlock Holmes which in many respects shows up in Dolittle. I had no problem understanding his accent in Dolittle, but I have family members who talk the same way, some even a little harder to understand. The voice casting was great, although I’ll confess to not knowing everyone from something else. Their emotional range fit the characters as they were presented, and the CGI was really great. Part of the marketing for the film was their audition videos as well, which, again, speak to Downy’s talent as an actor interacting with empty space 90% of the time for the film, and 100% of the time for their audition videos.

I believe Emma Thompson provided the voice of Polynesia in the West End Musical which had all the animals in animatronic form provided by the  Jim Henson Company, and this short documentary on the making of it really makes me wish I could have seen it live:

Maybe I am just better at suspending disbelief than others but I wish we’d get a series somewhere out of this. The opening flashback was done in a quick and artsy animated style and that would be an amazing way to keep the stories alive. But, given the “dismal” box office reports, this is probably all we get, and you know what, as disappointing as that is, it’s fine because it stands on its own. I also wouldn’t mind having most of the wardrobe that Downey wore in this film, scaled up to my size, of course.

Dressing for Buckingham

Maybe the movie was just made for a handful of people. I’ve seen worse, and worse that made more money. This one pulled a lot of nostalgia out for me, so much so that I chanced taking my 18 month old son to a showing so it would be his official first theatre film. He was engrossed the whole time, and didn’t fuss or cause any kind of disturbance. He made until the last 15 minutes before he couldn’t stay awake any longer. Had the movie started at the listed time instead of the 20 minutes of previews he would have made it all the way.  It’ll have that spot with us too. I had originally wanted to take him to see Missing Link as his first for some professional adventurer sort of imprinting that I had in college, but he was way too young to be dragging around like that then, and I am glad it worked out this way.  Being able to share that with him, even though he will never remember it was a really great experience for me.

Doctor Dolittle 1967 Poster

The original 1967 musical version, which I also really like, bombed at the theatres as well. The whole trying to take hundreds of animals from the US to England to film and having to quarantine them to locals trying to sabotage production, to the back end animosity between Rex and Newly, it was amazing that it had every been completed in the first place. The original cut was too long so they edited out many of the first scenes that had been shot and used for promotion–the whole Dolittle on a Giraffe bit, but it was still referenced in the film when Dolittle gives Matthew the tooth he was called to Africa to pull.

Dolittle Exhibit at Bizzell Memorial Library at the University of Oklahoma

Through some fantastic 1960s politicking the film won two academy awards, one for best song (Talk to the Animals) and best set design. I put together a little pop up display at work to start or Bizz at the Movies series where I use things from the collection that tie into what’s at the box office (next month it is Emma), and found this nice little article in the September 20, 1966 LIFE Magazine.  Colin Lofting, son of Dolittle creator Hugh Lofting, wrote for the magazine and included a piece about his dad after the article.

One of the most thorough accounts of all that goings on with the original film can be found in Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of New Hollywood. Harris looks at all five nominees for best picture in 1967  including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Doctor Doolittle, and Bonnie and Clyde-and through them, the larger story of the cultural revolution that transformed Hollywood, and America, forever.” There is also the added benefit of having an entire Dolittle soundtrack recorded by Sammy Davis, Jr, who was supposed to be in the film at one time, was present to accept the academy award for best new song, and whose relationship with Leslie Bricusse brought him his first number one song (Candyman from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

I hope that Dolittle with at the very least get the cult status that the original 1967 film has, it deserves that. I generally don’t wish any interaction with Hollywood folks on my part, but this is one time I really wish I could tell everyone that worked on the production “thank you” in person. It brought something back to me at a time when I could give it to my son, and remember the joy that books can still bring. We’ll at least have it at our house when it comes to DVD, BluRay, or Digital. I’ll take Dolittle over hobbits, dwarves, elves, and wizards any day.

Hugh Lofting’s frontispiece to The Story of Doctor Dolittle

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