"Doctor Dolittle" was an attempt by Twentieth Century-Fox to recreate the success they had with "The Sound of Music" and splashed the cash in trying to make it great. Unfortunately it didn't work; "Doctor Dolittle" made a loss and was part of the reason that for a period Twentieth Century-Fox was in financial difficulty towards the end of the 60s.
So why didn't it work because to be honest there is a lot which is good about "Doctor Dolittle", take Rex Harrison, so he couldn't sing but he delivered the eccentric aspect of Dr. John Dolittle perfectly. And whilst Harrison couldn't sing the songs are for the most great with plenty of numbers which are now instantly recognizable. And you can add to that the sets, from Castle Combe being used as Puddleby-on-the-Marsh to the intricate and imaginative details when shooting moved to the studio. "Doctor Dolittle" is a beautifully made movie with the look and the sound and the humour which means it should work except it is too long.
"Doctor Dolittle" is 152 minutes long and meanders all over the place before finally arriving at the main story when it gets past the half way mark. If only it had been shorter, if only the writers had chopped out much of the first half "Doctor Dolittle" would have been one of the more memorable musicals.
So as to the actual storyline to "Doctor Dolittle" well the first half of the movie is an introduction as we meet Matt (Anthony Newley) and his young friend Tommy Stubbins (William Dix) who visit Dr. John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) with an out of sorts duck. What follows tells us all about how Dr. Dolittle learned to speak to animals, why he speaks to animals, how it all started and why he is a vegetarian veterinarian. Then we also get the introduction of Pushme-Pullyu which leads to Dr. Dolittle joining the circus to raise some money which through an incident with a Sea lion dressed as a woman sees him arrested and in court. And there is more with introductions to other characters such as Emma (Samantha Eggar) and a big musical number with Circus owner Albert Blossom (Richard Attenborough - The Flight of the Phoenix).
The trouble is that this first half is in so many ways just padding, it may be giving us back story but to take up nearly two hours that is a lot of back story. Eventually we do get to what is the main story which is Dr. John Dolittle, Matt, Tommy and Emma heading off on their adventure to find the Great Pink Sea Snail and ending up on the floating Sea Star Island, ironically a floating island with a volcano no less. This second half has trouble on the boat, trouble with a tribe and some other things. But in truth because "Doctor Dolittle" has so many little stories going on it becomes meandering, like a loved old grandpa sitting in the corner telling you all about his past and who doesn't know when to leave bits out from his stories.
Because "Doctor Dolittle" meanders and in doing so goes on far too long it spoils much of what is good about it. As already mentioned the use of Castle Combe as Puddleby-on-the-Marsh is a great location and when we go into the Doctor's home with all his animals and gadgets it feeds your imagination. Add to that the musical numbers with so many songs which are now well known and there is plenty of fun going on and that is before you get to some clever writing as in the tribe of people they meet on Sea Star Island. But because it goes on too long and meanders from one story to another it loses you.
Now we come to Rex Harrison who whilst is great at delivering the upper class eccentricity of Dr. John Dolittle cannot sing, but thanks to the great song writers who deliver some brilliant rhyming lyrics he gets away with it. Impressing more when it comes to the actual singing part is Anthony Newley as Matt although Richard Attenborough's rambunctious rendition of "I've Never Seen Anything Like It" is a scene stealer. To be honest the casting is spot on from start to finish and that includes a fun performance from Geoffrey Holder as William Shakespeare X.
What this all boils down to is that "Doctor Dolittle" has so many positives it should be a great 60s musical. But unfortunately because the storyline becomes a meandering collection of little stories it not only goes on too long but it struggles to keep your attention.