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My friend the Doctor
on 24 March 2009
The argument goes that before Pixar came along, there were kiddy's films for kids and grown-up films for grown up. Then along came Shrek, et al, and suddenly we had proper family films that everyone would love. Well, the 1967 Dr Dolittle demonstrates that just isn't true. This is a smart, thought-provoking and fun musical adventure that everyone should see at least once. Having loved this as a child, I was quite shocked at what they did in the remake, but was solaced somewhat by the realization that they are very different films. So if your kids loved/hated the modern version, they can probably watch this as well without being bored or conflicted.
The first and probably most startling difference between the two films is in the character of John Dolittle. In this version, Rex Harrison doesn't suddenly wake up with an inexplicable ability to communicate with animals. Rather, his ability is earned through study and the guidance of his pet parrot, Polynesia. He was prompted to do this through his frustrations with the idiocies of many of his human patients. So here we have a man who can talk to animals, but not to his own sister. He embraces and revels in his ability, as in the infectious number, "Talk to the animals." His position is that of the misfit, an eccentric but brilliant man (and Harrison was clearly the man for THAT job) whose behavior is understood and tolerated by few. His journey through the film is also a journey towards reconciling himself to the people around him, which is ultimately a positive message.
The secondary characters usually stack up just as well. Samantha Eggar shines as the feisty Emma Fairfax, but adults might find the overtly stereotyped Matthew (an inebriated Irishman) a little trying. Thankfully he's only really prominent for the first half of the film. It seems fair to count the animals as characters too, and children will certainly remember the Great Pink Sea Snail (a wonderful bit of sixties psychedelia) and Sophie the seal as well as they remember the humans.
This is also notable for being a children's film that doesn't talk down to it's audience, and which espouses many of the more progressive ideals of the 1960's. It doesn't shy away from using big words, and adults will probably chuckle when, questioned as to why she speaks Unicorn, Polynesia replies that she had a "classical eduction." Unsurprisingly for a film that centers on the communication between animal and man, the question is raised as to how badly and with what right man mistreats the animal kingdom. The civilized natives of Sea-star Island, who have educated themselves in isolation using the flotsam and jetsam of the rest of the world, and who hold annual Shakespeare festivals, is another example. As a portrayal of non-white ethnicity it might be seen now as unintentionally patronizing, but it's miles better than the image of the savage islander so recently revamped in films like Pirates of the Caribbean.
The musical numbers are, in places, wonderful. The ebullient "I've never seen anything like it", sung by a hard-nosed Yorkshire man, is the stand out, and should bring a little wonder and joy into even the most cynical of hearts. "My friend the doctor" is annoyingly hummable, while a gentler, whimsical note is introduced through "Beautiful things." Others, such as "When I look in your eyes" will drag, especially if you are trying to entertain very young children, but it's swiftly followed by the rabble-rousing "Like animals."
There are, of course, many of the problems that you find with older films. Most adults will wonder at the hypocrisy of a film preaching animal rights whilst simultaneously exploiting them in ways now unacceptable in the circus scenes. The push-me-pull-you, though a wonderful idea in principal, will not stand up to the scrutiny of CGI-savvy children. Some children might also be frustrated by the overall lack of action scenes that seem to be compulsory in most newer family films.
My advice is that this would be best suited to children over the age of six, or those of a gentler or more thoughtful disposition, and of course all the animal lovers. It's also well suited to a mixed family setting- there are no cringing moments of overt, Steven Spielberg-style sentimentality to invite the scorn of older children, while adults will appreciate the more mature characterizations, and everyone can enjoy the songs.