Whenever a children's classic has been blessed with great illustrations, a film version of the story almost always seems like a betrayal of trust. No movie could ever match the sweep and detail of N. C. Wyeth's paintings for Treasure Island, and Tenniel's droll grotesques for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland remain as much a part of the book's charm as Alice herself.
Dr. Dolittle presented its film adapters with the same kind of problem: Hugh Lofting's drawings for his own books conveyed an inimitably whimsical presence of animals and the funny little man who could talk to them. In this musical movie, Dr. Dolittle's character, as well as his physiognomy, has gone astray. The pleasingly plump physician has been transformed into a lean, saturnine ectomorph (Rex Harrison) who treats his furred and feathered charges with all the intimacy of a Harley Street internist ordering a set of X rays. Surrounding him, however, is a brilliant supporting cast: pigs, dogs, giraffes, elephants, hippos, and a multilingual parrot.
Based upon a number of Lofting books, the movie begins when Dolittle is just a plain, ordinary people doctor. One day he learns to talk to animals, and thereafter his odd behavior tries his patients, who would like to see him committed to Her Majesty's asylum. With the help of his animal chums, he breaks away and sails on the good ship Flounder in search of the Great Pink Sea Snail. On board his overloaded ark are an Irish cat-food seller (Anthony Newley), a small boy (William Dix), and a pretty admirer (Samantha Eggar). All too soon the Flounder flounders and the story slows down to its quarry's pace. Moreover, because violence is done to the originalthere was no love interest in the books, for example, except between animalseven the underlying whimsey is worn away.
Rex Harrison's unsung approach to lyrics is reminiscent of My Fair Lady, but Leslie Bricusse's songs are not. As a composer, Bricusse (Roar of the Greasepaint, Stop the World) seems to have kept a wary eye on the charts, inserting flaccid pop songs whenever the action flags. In such a child-centered zoo story, the animals, of course, should be the true stars of the picture. But Director Richard Fleischer has inserted a number of special-effect monstrosities whose obvious falsity helps to destroy the mood created by the real zoo denizens. The Sea Snail is laughably mechanical, and the luna moth, which propels Harrison home to Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, looks like a five-and-ten windup toy left over from someone's Christmas stocking.
Such lapses of judgment only serve to point up the huge generation gap between children's film makers and their audience. Somehowwith the frequent but by no means infallible exception of Walt DisneyHollywood has never learned what so many children's book-writers have known all along: size and a big budget are no substitutes for originality or charm. The greatest works remain those that keep their audience in mind by thinking small.