Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Dolittle: Animal Magnetism

Robert Downey and Poly in Dolittle.

Dolittle received punitive reviews when it showed up on Prime last year, but I decided to check it out recently because I’ve always been partial to the material – the Hugh Lofting series of books, which came out between 1920 and 1948, were among my childhood favorites – and the thought of casting Robert Downey as the quirky Victorian veterinarian who can speak the languages of his patients sounded irresistible. Downey is the third cinematic Dolittle. Rex Harrison played him in the paralytic 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle, which is now remembered only for the Oscar-winning song “Talk to the Animals.” (The fact that it was nominated for Best Picture, apparently just because 20th Century-Fox had squandered so much money on it, now seems perplexing, but in his essential book Pictures at a Revolution Mark Harris makes sense of it, uses the 1967 competition for the award as an emblem for the shift from the old Hollywood to the new Hollywood.) Eddie Murphy was the star of the 1998 movie of the same name, which was lamely plotted but the director, Betty Thomas, cleverly used the animals as an out-of-control vaudeville show. The idea of the Murphy version is that, learning of the doctor’s gift, animals show up at all hours to secure treatment for their ills (psychological as well as physical); he can’t tune them out, they never shut up, and their non-stop cacophony is often hilarious. So are the voice actors, like Chris Rock, Norm McDonald, Albert Brooks, John Leguizamo, Reni Santoni, Paul Reubens, Gilbert Gottfried, and Garry Shandling and Julie Kavner as a pair of squabbling pigeons with sex problems. And Murphy is a good sport:  he allows himself to be upstaged by every animal in the picture. (A sequel came out in 2001.)