Our review of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Blu-Ray), published November 8th, 2010, is also available.
It was just an old neglected car. Who could have guessed…
Those who lament the "death" of the modern movie musical have rather selective memories. While they bemoan the lost masterworks and talents of the past, they fail to get a handle on the hackwork hailstones that finally destroyed the genre during the late 60s to mid 1970s. Indeed, when Burt Bacharach and Hal David scored the remake of Lost Horizon, turning it into a jumbled stream of consciousness mish-mash of pre-New-Age humanism and non-hummable anti-show tunes, no one was crying for the beloved all-singing, all-dancing cinema. Especially with the atonal Sally Kellerman belting out ballads like olive loaf belches. Sadly, the beginning of the end for the genre was already in sight long before Bobby Van lilted to little children about questioning him an answer (?). During the late 60s, Hollywood saw studios like Disney light up the box office with kid-oriented arias about magical nannies and vocalizing families avoiding the Nazis and wondered why their name wasn't on the libretto. And out of that mad dash to make mine music, a whole lot of coffin nails were fashioned for the burial chamber of the cinematic version of the Great White Way. Doctor Doolittle did nothing to make wee ones forget their aching butts, and miscalculations like the musical version of Goodbye Mr. Chips proved that the aforementioned Horizon would only end up walloping an already deceased Appaloosa. And then there is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Long thought of as a certain Mary Poppin's bastard sibling, this supernatural spree into strange currencies is either the worst House of Mouse songfest the omnipresent cartoon corporation never made or a decent attempt at a fun family film. While the jury is still out on the timelessness of this bloated bean feast, it's clear that the passage of years has mellowed the perceived pitfalls within.
Facts of the Case
Jeremy and Jemima, the twin offspring of absent-minded inventor Caractacus Potts, are in love with a junk car they've found, and they want their father to buy it for them. But Potts has limited funds, and when he does get money he sinks it into his contraptions. He tries to sell some of his homemade sweets to the local candy maker, Lord Scrumptious. Even with the help of his Lordship's daughter, a pretty young gal named Truly, the treats are rejected. But after an eventful night at a local fair, the tinkering tool master raises the money, buys the vehicle, spends weeks renovating it, and re-christens it Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Why? Because that's the sound the motor makes. Together with Truly, Caractacus and the twins set out for a picnic. Everything goes splendidly. But there is trouble afoot. Mr. Potts tells the story of Baron Bomburst and his desire to steal Chitty. Suddenly, pirates are attacking and the Baron is nearby, employing his spies to get the car. The villains kidnap Grandpa Potts instead. Eventually, everyone ends up in Vulgaria, a miserable little country where the Baron's wife has outlawed children. Will Caractacus, Truly, and the children be able to save their beloved Grandfather and help the townsfolk? Or is this the end of the fantastic motorcar Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a hard movie to categorize. It requires a level of understanding beyond what is simply on the screen and screams importance and power when it should really reel in the pretensions and merely entertain. It languishes over ideas that other films have done better and borrows so heavily from inside (and outside) the genre that it almost feels like watching the alternate version of some of Hollywood's finest song-oriented sensations. It is a trifurcated mess, a movie that uses a famous text (in this case, Ian Fleming's children's novel) and then lets Willy Wonka's creator fuse a candy factory fallacy onto the plot. Just when it seems like all the phantasmagorical car chaos is over with, it throws in a fantasy trip to Vulgaria to really confuse things. The main source of the film's fancy, the music, is also a strange amalgamation of previous popular Tinseltown sound-alikes mixed with really awkward attempts at cornball classicism. Sometimes everything comes together to render the madness manageable and harmonious. Other times, the divergent elements threaten to break the narrative apart at the saccharine seams. There is a lot to love about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, from the imaginative inventions and crackerjack energy of the dance numbers. But just when it seems like the film will take off, it instead fizzles and pops much like Caractacus Potts with the rocket pack strapped to his back. You could actually consider Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a spent firecracker.
There is lots of blame, shame, and celebrating to go around here. For the most part, the cast is fantastic. Dick Van Dyke drops the cockney crow and turns the "cracked" Mr. Potts into a noble visionary, an absent-minded professor with a real sense of responsibility. Stage legend Sally Ann Howes, hampered with one of the worst ballads ever transcribed to the bass and treble clefs, rises above the marginal material to make her obviously named Truly Scrumptious a more than passive paramour. Even Goldfinger himself, Gert Frobe, and that English rascal of randiness, Benny Hill, make excellent and entertaining co-stars. In the hands of action director Ken Hughes (Timeslip, Casino Royale), there is an epic splendor (almost too much so) and a visual oddness that invokes the fantasy elements very well. But song-wise, the film is very hit or miss. The Sherman Brothers, notorious for bringing to life many of Disney's most magical musical numbers, from Poppins to Pooh, are here doing the same thing that made Mickey's magic kingdom so melodious. But unlike other attempts to mimic Mary's mass appeal success, the Brothers never truly get the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tunes off the ground. The theme is a really catchy celebration of the title automobile and "The Old Bamboo" does Poppins' "Step in Time" one better by actually giving this busker style song some loopy lyrics. But when they turn on the schmaltz machine, cranking out the supposedly twinkling trills to evoke truth and beauty, the dewy derivativeness soaks through and stinks. Just like the fantasy/reality dynamic at play in the film, the musical mortar is also loose and unstable here.
Yet this technically should have all worked. At the time, the idea of making Chitty Chitty Bang Bang didn't seem like such a dumb delusion. The talent planets were all in alignment and the surefire furnace was fully stoked. Albert Broccoli, the guy who put the fad gadget in the James Bond films, found a pedigreed piece of publishing in Ian Fleming's children's book. He then fashioned his own "golden ticket" in hiring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory writer Roald Dahl to co-forge the script. Together with two-thirds of Poppins' popularity (no Andrews to be found) and an unlimited budget, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang should have been something special, something unique, and yet completely familiar to the family film audience. But it didn't turn out that way. In many ways, the problem with this movie is the one that Broccoli's benefice supposedly ensured. It's too produced. It's over-produced. It looks like it cost billions when the story and the songs it sells range in the mere hundreds. This is really a simple story of a derelict dad trying to sell his carefree children on the notion of whimsy and wonder. Add Fleming's original storyline (family fights British gangster and learns togetherness), and it's a fable as automotive fantasy. But Al wants to wrestle with the big boys, to out Walt Mr. D. and climb higher mountains than Rodgers and Hammerstein ever imagined. He only succeeds, however, in making a movie that works for about an hour and then disintegrates into a thousand uncomfortable pieces.
Everything about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is big, overblown, and redundant. Sets aren't just large; they scale new heights of artist interpretation, from a candy factory that looks like it was owned by Dr. Caligari (or JP Rockefeller) to an inventor's workshop that out-imagines that rube, Goldberg. Nothing seems practical, from the rowboat seats in Chitty's chassis to the rotor wings that supposedly lift the wondercar into the clouds. Engineering improbabilities are perhaps the last thing a children's fantasy film should be focusing on, but there has to be some level of believability in the far-fetched and freakish. Without something centered in the pragmatic, everything moves from special to surreal. And delirious daftness without rhyme or reason is just plain boring…and at the core of this film. We enjoy the factory tour candy whistle symphony "Toot Sweets" but then cringe as vats of scalding sugar are upturned onto cast members while dogs hurl themselves at the screen. Baron Bomburst wants Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for his very own, yet he sends two of the most miserable, unfunny slapstick stiffs from the old-fashioned British pantomime school of dullards into the fray to secure the car. In the world of Chitty, there are places with diabetes-inducing names like Hush-a-Bye Mountain and insane dictators calling their kid-hating wives "chu chi face." Whimsy is one thing, but the world of Caractacus Potts and his mechanical madness is just a series of odd juxtapositions, the basic with the outlandish, all wanting to create a mind bending musical masterpiece. What they end up with is candy-colored confusion.
But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang just can't do it. It's all so very, very weird. What other movie in the history of the genre featured a feeble old man character (grandpa Potts) making a daily adventure out of taking a dump? Why do the people of Vulgaria allow their leader to outlaw children, especially when an army of the bold brats led by Van Dyke can easily overwhelm their sad excuses for soldiers? Is the entire second half of the film a fantasy? Or did it really happen? And should we care either way (the interview with Van Dyke clears it up once and for all)? As a matter of fact, had the movie simply followed the adventures of the Potts clan as they learned the secrets of Chitty, the movie would have benefited when held up to closer scrutiny. But no, we need a great race adventure and once it goes global, nothing really works. The Vulgaria portion of the film (except for Frobe and Hill's unbridled hamminess) is forgettable. Minor amusing diversions include the music box song/robot dance by Howe and the delicate ballet-like menace of Sir Robert Helpmann as the Child Catcher (he seems like he escaped from another, better movie altogether). Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is like cramming two pieces of a pre-school puzzle together with the hope that no one notices the misaligned edges and inconsistent images. In the end, Van Dyke, Howe, and the children keep the entire movie afloat, making merriment out of potential excrement at every turn. Along with a few fine numbers by the Brothers Sherm and some spectacular visuals, this is one movie musical that should been better, but is understandably not as bad as history holds. It only sucks a little.
The new Special Edition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a real mea culpa DVD for MGM. Originally, the studio released this broad canvas musical movie in a horrendous full screen farce that mocked the only good aspects of the film (namely, its scope and grandeur) while playing up its "only good as a bloated babysitter" importance to families and fans. Outraged movie mavens and other more scholarly taunts have led to this latest version of the film (which still incorporates the pointless 1.33:1 aspect ratio on an irrelevant flip disc), and one must say, the anamorphic widescreen was well worth the wait. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is drop-dead gorgeous in the transfer presented here: vibrant, colorful, and filled with aching beauty. On the downside, such a stunning transfer really shows the lousy bluescreen and effects work in the film (how could something given this much meticulous meddling by producer Broccoli look so stinky?). On the positive though, many scenes and sequences (including almost all of the dance numbers) are electric in this remastered print. Arguably, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang never looked this good ever. The 2.20:1 framing and composition are fantastic.
The sonic settings are also first class. The newly remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital is an aural delight, mixing directional dynamics with fantastic musical-number recreation to bring a bounty of audio excellence to life. If there is a drawback to this new technological wizardry, however, it is that every time someone breaks into song, the voice timbre goes from soundstage naturalistic to obviously in-studio dubbing and the spontaneity of the moment is almost completely destroyed. Still, the soundtrack never sounded better, and the voluminous voice of Sally Anne Howe (even in her less than stellar ballad bullspit) is remarkable.
Along with the improved sound and vision, MGM ladles on the extra goodies, dividing them equally amongst kid friendly (storybook, games) and memory-lane nostalgic (interviews, original press pieces). For the wee ones, we get some DVD-ROM coloring pages, a 32-page storybook as part of the box packaging, some DVD remote wrecking games, a sing-along option, and an additional read-along video storybook (sounds like someone is really learning at the feet of the House of Mouse when it comes to childchallenging DVD materials). These features are fun but mostly superfluous. All the features found on Disc Two are more or less adult-oriented, helping to flesh out Chitty. First up is a nice interview from 2003 with Dick Van Dyke, who holds this film in high regard. He is the one that lets slip the truth about the Vulgaria sequences (it's all a fantasy, folks) and how he injured himself whirling around the Scrumptious Candy Factory. He has nothing but praise for his fellow cast members and loves what Albert Broccoli tried to do with the movie (more or less make a James Bond for kids). Van Dyke has really aged and he tends to teeter every once in a while. But more times than not, the sparkle returns to his eyes and he's Bert the chimney sweep and Caractacus Potts all over again. It's also amazing to see the advance of years when this feature is viewed along with an MGM press piece from 1967 about the making of the film. In this old, faded film short, Van Dyke is interviewed by reporters on set, and looks like he's had a few "barley waters" before sitting down to chat. He gives great, professional answers to what are some really stupid questions ("Why are you making this film?"), but one does get the sense that he would rather be down at the pub pulling a few pints.
MGM also pulls out a couple of additional washed out wonders from the vault to underscore the seriousness with which everyone took this film. "The Ditchling Tinkerer" is a short film about Rowland Emett, the man who "invented" all of the "inventions" in the film. Really an artist working in everyday objects, this true British eccentric lives up to his name as the "real Caractacus Potts." The cinematic child actors in the film also get an introduction and PR push with a behind-the-scenes look at their working with big name talent on a monumental musical epic. If you ever wondered what happened to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang itself (the original car from the film), look no further than Disc Two again. There we learn the story of Pierre Picton, an ex-clown who found himself looking after the vehicle onset, and, once filming was done, was given the chance to buy it. He has treasured it ever since. Additionally, the score of Chitty is highlighted in an audio only section featuring demo versions of the film songs (and some rare, unused tracks) performed by the Sherman Brother's themselves. While not the most naturalistic of musical talents, they sell their tunes well and the previously unheard tracks are really a hoot. Finally, we get many trailers from the time period, some more Madison Avenue advertising for upcoming DVD releases, and a nice still gallery to round out the bountiful package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If one can remove oneself from the other movie musicals that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang borrows from (Mary Poppins) and pre-dates (Willy Wonka), the wonder and the magic of the film will unfold like the delicate petals of a fabulous flower. There is a real attempt, dark undercurrents and strange surrealism included, to create a challenging, contemporary family film that still utilizes the old fashioned musical format as its stalwart foundation. What results is a lark that plays with a real sense of drama, a slapstick farce matched with a sinister allegory to say something significant about imagination, invention, and togetherness. As a film, there are certainly flaws here, but the good outweighs the bad upon each additional viewing. The love story between Caractacus and Truly is nicely handled. The sets are spectacular to look at, and the mixing of fantasy with reality is deft and delightful. And then there is the music itself. The Sherman Brothers have created many timeless tracks, from pop songs to powerful showstoppers, and the score for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is loaded with classics. If you don't come away from this film singing or humming the soundtrack, there is something wrong with your sense of song. It is by no means a masterpiece, but it is not the God-awful atrocity that many backward-thinking critics have made it out to be. Okay…okay…so it's not Mary Poppins, but it was never meant to be. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is its own creation and can stand on its own cheerful, crackpot feet.
Currently on London's West End, Chitty is making a huge comeback and commercial splash as a White Way wonder. It seems odd that a movie as already manufactured as this one has easily made a smooth transition to the stage. But then again, the years have also been kind to this kiddy-fare fracas, and what once seemed steeped in stupidity and over-the-top tripe is now a thoroughly enjoyable movie musical…up until a point. Once Baron Bomburst and his cracked cronies take over the narrative, no amount of motion picture magic could salvage the show. But while it's working, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang reminds you of the days when the world was a little less ironic, far less cynical, and more open to the pure joy of characters breaking into song. In light of the digital revolution, it's a safe bet that many of the miscreant cinematic stool samples that really caused the death of the musical will be unearthed and thrust upon a collectible-minded public (Anthony Newly, your craven canon is calling). But let's remove Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from that evil lineup once and for all. Is it perfect? Heck no. Is it even good? Almost. But as an example of several skilled technicians, from actor to composer, banging on all petrol cylinders, it's a wonderful visual feast. The narrative may not be as sleek as a thoroughbred, and some of the songs fail to lull you to cheerful comfort like a warm and snuggly featherbed, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will definitely turn your head, today or any day. It's a fun, phantasmagorical throwback. And it will have you rethinking its place in the musical's mausoleum.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is found not guilty on one count of being an accessory to the death of the movie musical. It is found guilty, however, on the lesser-included charge of being an incomplete, wildly schizophrenic film and sentenced to two years in the Nutty Narrative Wing of the Awkward Juxtaposition Jail. MGM is found not guilty and is praised for the marvelous DVD package presented here.
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