MGM // 1968 // 145 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 8th, 2010
The most fantasmagorical musical entertainment in the history of everything!
"There are children here somewhere. I can smell them."
Jeremy (Adrian Hall) and Jemima Potts (Heather Ripley) are two young British children with active imaginations. Lately, they've been spending their days at a local junk yard, sitting inside a battered old automobile and pretending to have grand adventures. Alas, someone finally wants to buy the old clunker and melt it down. Desperate to save their beloved car, the children turn to their father, the eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke, Night at the Museum). Using every ounce of ingenuity at his disposal, Caractacus finds a way to purchase and restore the vehicle. The car may sputter and cough a great deal (making a distinctive "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" sound as it putters along), but it works. To celebrate, Caractacus, Jeremy, Jemima, and the lovely Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes, Fools Rush In) travel to the beach to enjoy a picnic. While there, Caractacus decides to tell Truly and the kids a story. Using the power of imagination, Truly and the Potts family travel to the mysterious and colorful land of Vulgaria, where they must avoid the clutches of the egomaniacal Baron Bomburst (Gert Frobe, Goldfinger) and the terrifying Child Catcher (Robert Helpmann, The Red Shoes).
I loved Chitty Chitty Bang Bang so much as a kid. The film has pleasures to offer viewers young and old, but it seems more specifically geared at children than most family films. So much of what Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has to offer seems programmed to directly connect with the pleasure centers of children's brains. Watching the film again as an adult, its flaws are more noticeable and its gaps in logic slightly more bothersome at times (for instance, why does Truly Scrumptious campaign so passionately on Caractacus' behalf immediately after having a nasty tift with him?). Even so, the film offers more than enough delights (both legitimate and nostalgia-induced) to remain an immensely enjoyable experience.
Oddly enough, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a film that remains inextricably tied to the James Bond franchise. It's based on a story by Bond novelist Ian Fleming, the film was produced by the legendary Albert R. Broccoli (who produced every Bond film from Dr. No to Licence to Kill, and said that he intended Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as essentially a, "James Bond adventure for children"), Bond actors Gert Frobe and Desmond Llewelyn ("Q" in almost all of the Bond flicks) turned up in supporting roles, Casino Royale director Ken Hughes directed the film, Bond production designer Ken Adam worked on the film...the list goes on. Despite all of the 007-related players involved, the strongest voice in the film is that of co-writer Roald Dahl.
Admittedly, Dahl was also a part of the Bond franchise (he wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice), but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feels very much in line with Dahl's beloved, eccentric children's books. That sense of "anything goes" whimsy and frenzy, that unmistakable wit, the children vs. adults theme and the willingness to embrace surprisingly dark, violent elements at any moment. Dahl's gently anarchic sensibilities have always registered with kids, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remains a film that will surely continue to make an impression on younger viewers. The film knows how to delight kids (offering Dick Van Dyke as the world's coolest dad, undercutting "mushy" moments with comedy, needlessly-yet-delightfully elaborate inventions and machinery, cheerful slapstick of all sorts) and how to terrify them (Helpmann's Child Catcher is frequently named as one of the most frightening movie characters of all time).
The film is a musical, of course, and features quite a lot of songs by genre standards. Fortunately, most of the numbers (written by the ever-reliable Richard and Robert Sherman, in their first non-Disney outing) are memorably tuneful, from the catchy title song to the frantic "Me Ol' Bamboo" to the amusingly stirring "The Roses of Success." I've always had a soft spot for the brief but gorgeous "Hushabye Mountain," performed beautifully by Van Dyke in one of the film's few quiet, sincere moments. While I've never understood precisely why the Baron has such murderous hatred for the Baroness (Anna Quayle, Casino Royale), it's nonetheless amusing to see him attempting to off her during the oppressively cuddly "Chu-Chi Face."
The performances are mostly quite solid, with Van Dyke proving an effectively appealing lead. Van Dyke is technically playing a British character, but only accepted the part on the condition that he wouldn't have to attempt a British accent. Probably for the best, considering Mary Poppins. Heather Ripley and Adrian Hall are effectively lovable as the kids, while Lionel Jeffries generates a lot of laughs in his role as the peculiar Grandpa Potts. Gert Frobe seems to enjoy going way over the top as the appropriately-named Baron Bomburst, while Robert Helpmann is appropriately chilling as the hook-handed Child Catcher. There's also a nice little turn from Benny Hill as the kind-hearted Toymaker.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang arrives on Blu-ray sporting a very handsome 1080p/2.20:1 transfer. The film was shot on 70mm, and like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the new release of The Sound of Music, it looks simply dazzling. The level of detail is just remarkable for a film over 40 years old, as the image looks unwaveringly pristine throughout. Considering that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is loaded with elaborate visual delights, the transfer goes a long way towards bringing out previously unseen details. Blacks are deep and inky, while shadow delineation is equally impressive. There's a very minor level of natural grain throughout, with no evidence of any tampering present. The audio is also quite strong -- just listen to the immersive opening minute or so with car engines roaring around your speaker system! -- and the entire film proves a surprisingly immersive experience. The music is robust and cheerful, the sometimes-chaotic sound design never becomes too muddy and the dialogue is clean and clear. My only complaint (and it's a tiny one) is that there's a slightly distracting shift in the sound when characters stop talking and starting singing. Still, that can't be helped.
The supplemental package is a little disappointing. The best feature is "Remembering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Dick Van Dyke" (26 minutes), a nice retrospective interview with the actor. "A Fantasmagorical Motor Car" (10 minutes) offers a neat interview with car aficionado Pierre Picton, while three vintage featurettes ("The Ditchling Tinkerer," "Dick Van Dyke Interview," and "The Potts Children Featurette") take a look at the film around the time of its release. You also get 30 minutes of Sherman Brothers demos, a "Music Machine" that lets you watch the songs from the film by themselves, "Sing-Along Mode" (follow the bouncing ball as you watch the movie), a bland interactive game called "Toot Sweet Toots Musical Maestro), some trailers and a photo gallery. Oh, and there's a DVD copy of the film. This stuff is okay, but a solid making-of documentary or commentary would have added a lot.
The performance of Sally Ann Howe as Truly Scrumptious isn't exactly bad, but there's the distinct sense she shouldn't be playing the role. That's because it was written for Julie Andrews (who was unfortunately unavailable), and Howe basically does a Julie Andrews impersonation in the part. Alas, Howe's acting abilities are considerable more limited than Andrews', making the performance feel more than a little awkward. In addition, the 145-minute running time is just a little bloated. The action seems to run on a little long towards the end, while the bland "Lovely Lonely Man" song could have easily been snipped (I'm not picking on Howe again; just the fact that the song is both unmemorable and a bit pointless).
While perhaps falling of short of being a genuine classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remains a cinematic delight. It's recommended for viewers of any age, but it's absolutely essential viewing for kids. The hi-def image and sound are terrific, making it easy to suggest an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Interactive Game
* Photo Gallery
* DVD Copy