I remember the wondrous production of Dr Dolittle in London towards the end of the 1990s, with Philip Schofield. Julie Andrews lent her voice to the parrot Polynesia, so, at the time, it was a bit like the theatrical sensation when Laurence Olivier was projected on to a screen during the rock opera TIME. In the case of Dame Julie, it was also a return to musicals for a lady who had just famously lost her voice. As for the producers, it’s certainly a way to get a big name on the theatre Marquee and up there on the billboards.
Schofield, by the way, was excellent in every way.
He was much warmer, too, than Rex Harrison who had done the 1967 film, one of those handful of films that, frankly, defined my childhood. I had a jigsaw, a book I still possess and yes, a roll-out map with rub-down transfers of animals. I thought it was Magical.
Not so magical for the 20th Century Fox film-makers, however: the Producer, Arthur P Jacobs, had a heart attack and the production itself was dogged with disaster, not least because of rain in Castle Combe and the film clocked up an impressive over-budget of $29 million, three times its original estimate. Rex Harrison proved to be a nightmare, with an ego inflated by oscar success in My Fair Lady, a mad wife and a fairly alarming line in racist banter aimed at hi9s co-star Anthony Newley. It is a bit shocking, really.
There is an odd link between the old movie and the new one, by the way- in Fiennes snr, whose son lends his voice to one of the better characters and who, as a 22 year old, before hitting fame as an explorer, tried to sabotage the film by blowing up a dam created by the film-crew to make the trout river appear to be a sea-inlet in the idyllic Puddleby-on-sea. Ranulph Fiennes was arrested for what he said then was an attempt at stopping “mass entertainment from riding roughshod over the feelings of the people”. It won two oscars.
But the question remains, is it possible to talk to animals or for them ever to talk to us? My cat, Hanim, has a range of noises that seem to communicate though she can hiss at her brother, Bey, in a quite unnerving way and she still slaps him. Recently, she has stopped purring or it has become very faint. She is old now.
But much of her communication has always been about the quality of the look she gives me. In fact, depending on her mood, her whole face changes shape completely.
Samuel Peypes records seeing a “great baboon” shortly after he arrived in London. He writes, “I do believe it already understands much English and I am of a mind it might be taught to speak”. There are a number of quasi-scientific records of communicating primates, though there is always the suspicion that we are stuck in some sort of conjuring trick, a bit like those chess-playing automata of the 17th/18th centuries, or, indeed, the basis of AI where computers repeat what they have been taught to say. It is not quite genuine communication- it is elaborate imitation. Parrots do it in a more modest fashion. (Back to Julie Andrews I suppose and her performance with Schofield!)
Hanim may not articulate sentences, but she certainly communicates and it seems to go beyond a need for basic foods. She enquires, it seems to me about my well-being, she is attentive and she is curious. These days, it is a bit reversed and she responds in a series of looks to my requests about her well-being. So far, so good. But she is frail, fragile. I wish I could do more for her.
And to the film- Oddly costing $175 million and yet abbreviated to exclude the protagonist’s title. So, just “Dolittle” it is. No “Doctor.”and it was a disappointment that did very little if truth be told. It began with some nicely-coloured but worryingly wooden animation, gorgeous sets and inventive imagery; it was even partially redeemed by Antonio Banderas (Rassouli- yet another film version version of Lofting’s original Pirate king, “Bumpo”?) pretending to be Jack Sparrow, and Ralph Fiennes’ gorgeously animated tiger, Barry. I had high hopes for Michael Sheen, but he only came into his own at the end of the credits when he was spared a teasing moment to be eaten alive by a cave-full of bats.
The main problem, I suppose, lay in Downey jr’s welsh accent- something I had been warned about but did not realise would be as ghastly as it sounded. It was not at all wrong- indeed, to my ear, it was spot-on but just dull as ditchwater. If we want to hear an energetic welsh actor, we have plenty alive who would have done a better job- one of them bizarrely in the same movie, but Rob Brydon, Rhys Ifans and Anthony Hopkins would have done just in the title-role as well as Michael Sheen.
Even 16 year-old Harry Collett could have taken on the main role, could have carried the film. He has form- in 10 episodes of Casualty and bits and pieces of creditable voice-work for animation. I was certainly more invested in following his adventures than Downey’s Dolittle. Let’s hope Collett gets even better and bigger opportunities- he is winsome and agile: the next ironman maybe? The next Christian Bale? I drew him here first!