Dr. Dolittle

Dr. Dolittle

Still shot courtesy of the author

Talk to the Animals

Can he really talk to the animals? We find out with Rex Harrison as Dr. John Dolittle – an eccentric man who loves animals. His 1967 film adaptation, Dr. Dolittle, took over four years to film. With over 1,200 live animals used in the movie (including an amazing, great pink sea snail 8-ton machine worth more than $65,000) it’s not surprising that this film went overbudget, coming in at $17 million!

Despite the film’s nine Oscar nominations, the project was a bust – earning only $9 million at the box office. Dr. Dolittle’s massive financial failure and terrible reviews ended Rex Harrison’s career as a leading man in cinema, but he did continue to act on stage. Interestingly, Harrison originally tried to back out of this role, with the studio hiring Christopher Plummer as his replacement. Obviously, Harrison was eventually coaxed back, but one must wonder if the film would have been received better if Christopher Plummer had played the title role.

Rex Harrison had such a bad attitude on set that other cast members loathed him. Harrison would deliberately ruin filming, disrupt scenes, direct anti-Semitic comments towards a fellow actor, and was all around mean-spirited. This demeanor caused the other cast members to nickname him Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“I speak over two thousand languages, including Dodo and Unicorn.” –Polynesia

Dr. Dolittle

Still shot courtesy of the author

With so much negativity, it’s hard to imagine anyone having fun on set – but there is one story in which I am sure there were giggles. “The reluctant vegetarian” number proved to be one of the hardest to film due to the number of animals required to stay still. During the first take things were going wonderfully until Rex Harrison stopped singing. When Richard Fleischer, the director of the film, asked him why he stopped Harrison told him he heard him yell “cut.” Fleischer denied saying this and while the two argued a voice yelled “cut.” Turns out the voice was Polynesia the parrot who was repeating what he had heard throughout filming. The two took this in stride, with Harrison saying “that’s the first time I’ve ever been directed by a parrot. But she may be right. I probably can do it better.” So despite all the negativity surrounding this film is it worth your time? Is it still a fun watch?

Plot Summary

The film begins with a fun, colorful introduction where we see many different animals while listening to an amazing score! After the introduction we are transported to early Victorian England where we are introduced to Matthew (Anthony Newly) and his young friend Tommy (William Dix). Matthew introduces Tommy to his friend Dr. John Dolittle, a quirky animal doctor who lives in a beautiful house alongside his menagerie.

Dolittle claims he can talk to animals, a skill he uses to help in aiding his clients. While he loves his job as a veterinarian, studying animal language with the help of his parrot and friend Polynesia, he soon sets out on a new mission – an expedition to prove that the great pink sea snail is real. With his special abilities he learns that the animals can help guide him and provide information about the elusive great pink sea sail.

“John Dolittle is the greatest animal doctor in the world today”- Matthew

Dr. Dolittle

Still shot courtesy of the author

We enter a new day and the doctor is treating a horse for nearsightedness, when his owner General Bellows comes barging in. Bellows insists that Dolittle has stolen his horse and threatens to put him in prison, claiming that the doctor is mad. During this ordeal we also meet Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar), the beautiful niece of General Bellows and a women’s rights activist. Matthew falls in love with Emma at first sight, while Emma makes it very clear that she can’t stand him or Dolittle’s lack of human empathy.

Emma storms away, and while outside, a man delivers a large box. Upon investigation the box contains a pushmi-pullyu (a rare creature that looks like a llama with a head on each end of the body). This interesting creature is a gift from the Dolittle’s American Indian friend, meant to help raise money for the snail expedition. Dolittle takes the pushmi-pullyu to a circus where it becomes the star and a main money-maker.

“I’ve come to the conclusion, with the possible exception of yourself, I have nothing in common with the human race.” –Dr. Dolittle

While working at the circus Dolittle befriends a seal named Sophie. Sophie is sad and wants to be reunited with her husband in the ocean. Dolittle decides to smuggle her out and release her. As he does so, it appears to passersby that he is throwing a lady over the cliff! Dolittle tries to explain that it was Sophie disguised in a dress, but no one believes him. Now in jail on a murder charge by the order of General Bellowes, Emma begins to have a soft spot for the doctor and decides to help him escape prison to start the expedition.

Dr. Dolittle

Still shot courtesy of the author

Adventure awaits with great escapes, storms, strange islanders and new animal friends. Will England ever accept Dolittle? Will he find the great pink sea snail? Will Emma fall in love with the doctor or with Matthew? And will they all survive the crazy adventures?

Content for Concern

Slapstick violence is seen, but nothing over the top. Natives do threaten to burn their visitors and throw spears at them, but no one is hurt. Also, while Matthew drinks throughout the film, it is not excessive and there is no drunken behavior. All in all, this film is refreshingly clean, containing no language.


With a run time of 152 minutes many of the film’s audiences found it too long. I would humbly disagree. With a beautiful score, whimsical songs, colorful characters and exotic scenery Dr. Dolittle truly transports you into a storybook world.

The acting is wonderful and the chemistry between the characters is great. You would never guess they didn’t get along – which is a true testament to what wonderful actors they are! Putting aside all the production issues and attitudes of the actors, I absolutely love this film! In my opinion it did not get the respect it deserved. I definitely consider this film a classic and a must-watch for any musical fan!

Replies for “Dr. Dolittle

  • Bob Bright

    I thoroughly enjoyed your review. I loved this movie as a child, and many decades later I’ve purchased it on Blu-ray and have since been transported many times back into the whimsical world of Doctor Dolittle. The movie has many memorable songs, and it’s no small thing to be a part of a beautiful fantasy world, no matter how short the time. I am a bit dismayed to learn about Rex Harrison’s behavior, but as you correctly observe, the acting is so good that the viewer has no idea. This is a wonderful film and is far greater than some reviews would suggest.


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