Elephantine roadshows dominated the late 1960s simultaneous with the emergence of the New Hollywood era of breakthrough films and innovative filmmakers. The former type of film continued to play the big downtown movie palaces with runs extending for months at a time, sometimes more than a year, before going into general release. Some of these pictures - The Sound of Music (1965) for one - had been spectacularly successful. But an increasing number - Doctor Dolittle (1967), Star! (1968), Paint Your Wagon, Hello, Dolly! (1969) - had been outrageously expensive, influential film critics hated them, and most bombed badly at the box office.
Among the latter was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) a peculiar merging of talent from the wildly successful James Bond series with key contributors from Mary Poppins (1964), namely star Dick Van Dyke and longtime Disney songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. Critics generally hated the film, echoing Leonard Martin's later assessment that it was "one big Edsel, with [a] totally forgettable score and some of the shoddiest special effects ever." The film was reasonably popular and later frequently aired on television but it lost money.
Through the years, despite persistent and extremely negative critical reaction, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remains popular. The film has many fine qualities, some frustratingly wrong-headed concepts, and is unnecessarily bloated and overlong, though it's also an incredibly handsome, visually stunning film.
On television, of course, the film is usually panned-and-scanned, but even its 16:9 enhanced widescreen DVD release can only hint at its visual splendor. Now comes a Blu-ray release of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and it does a mighty fine job approximating the film's original roadshow version, where it was presented in Super Panavision 70, with six-track magnetic stereo.
The high-def transfer is fantastic. Were I not this very week reviewing equally fine, maybe even slightly superior Blu-ray discs of The Sound of Music (1965) and White Christmas (1954), also drawn from large negative formats (Todd-AO and VistaVision), I would only hesitate slightly in calling Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the best looking classic film release of the year.
The film opens with an expensive-looking but funny and sweetly poetic prologue, set around 1910. In under-cranked footage suggesting early silent cinema, the vehicle that would eventually become Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a celebrated, unbeatable racecar until one Grand Prix, yards from the finish line, it swerves to avoid hitting a small child that has run out onto the track. The car crashes spectacularly and as the story proper begins, is now little more than scrap iron that George Coggins (Desmond Llewelyn, "Q" from the Bond films) intends to sell to a nasty junkman (Victor Maddern). Waif-like siblings Jeremy (Adrian Hall) and Jemima (Heather Ripley) have fallen in love with the car, and ask their eccentric inventor father, Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke), to buy it for them. He tries selling one of his inventions, a flute-like hard candy that whistles, to sweets magnate Lord Scrumptious (James Robertson Justice) but this ends disastrously when the sweets inadvertently attract packs of stray dogs.
(Mild Spoilers) Caractacus tries a new invention at a funfair. It's another disaster, but his impromptu participation in a song-and-dance routine ("Me Ol' Bamboo") elicits such a favorable reaction from the audience that the tips allow him to purchase the car. After restoring the vehicle with found parts around his windmill house, Caractacus takes his children out for a picnic, accompanied by Lord Scrumptious's daughter, Truly (Sally Anne Howes). (Truly Scrumptious being the G-rated equivalent of another Fleming heroine, Pussy Galore.)
There, Caractacus and Truly seem to be falling in love, while Caractacus tells the children a story about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In the extended fantasy sequence (that takes up more than half the film), the tyrannical ruler of Vulgaria, Baron Bomburst (Gert Fröbe, Goldfinger) becomes obsessed with the magical car, which can fly and float on water like a hovercraft. Spies (amusingly played by Alexander Doré and Bernard Spear) mistake Caractacus's even more eccentric father (Lionel Jeffries, actually younger than Van Dyke) for the inventor, and kidnap him to Vulgaria, where children, feared and reviled by the Baroness (Anna Quayle), are outlawed.
The second act follows the efforts of Caractacus, Truly, and a Vulgarian toymaker (Benny Hill) to rescue Grandpa Potts, and later Jeremy and Jemima, who are captured by the insidious Child Catcher (Robert Helpmann).
Except for all the business in Vulgaria, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang follows the basic plot of the original 1964 novel by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, but the screenplay much more closely reflects the concerns and interests of writer Roald Dahl, whose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published four years earlier, and who previously adapted the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967). In Vulgaria, it's Dahl in spades, with grotesque, Fellini-like characterizations, much black humor (e.g., the Baron's repeated attempts to murder his wife, the dungeon full of imprisoned inventors, all ashen-faced with long beards), innocent children victimized by monstrous, insane adults in positions of authority, etc., and reflecting Dahl's major influences, notably Dickens and Norwegian fairy tales.
Much of this is at odds with the film producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and others probably had in mind. They were more likely thinking in terms of something along the lines of Mary Poppins, if on a grander, less studio-bound scale, hence Van Dyke and songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, all veterans of that film. (One major difference: stung by universal condemnation of his unspeakably awful Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, Van Dyke accepted the role in this on the condition that he be allowed to speak American-accented English. He attempts a very slight English accent here and there, but it's mostly incongruous middle-American throughout.)
The result is a strange, disjointed film. Much of it has near-zero appeal for small children, such as Truly's solo "Lovely, Lonely Man," in which she pines away for Caractacus in the family garden, or the number "Chu-Chi Face," which Baron Bomburst sings to his wife (she decked out like a Bavarian Sally Bowles) while trying to murder her. Adults tend to find the latter scene quite hilarious and uniquely Dahl-esque, but it left younger children nonplussed, to say the least.
As a character, Caractacus is badly conceived, and Van Dyke's performance doesn't help. In early scenes, he's openly hostile toward Truly without any justification, and grimly determined in all the Vulgaria scenes. Van Dyke is one of the most appealing performers in the history of show business, with much infectious charm, but that's strangely absent in large swaths of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Possibly the actor's alcoholism, a growing problem for Van Dyke at the time, impacted his performance. And yet in other scenes his appeal comes through - he's outstanding in all of the musical numbers, and is so good with the two young actors playing his children that, watching the film, he prompted one friend's five-year-old son to remark, "He's the best Dad ever!"
The story-within-the-story structure is also strange; when the film returns to "reality" near the end it's a bit jarring, as the audience has come to accept the plot developments as movie reality. Moreover, the film drags on at the end, clumsily trying to tie up all the loose ends from the first-half of the picture.
Nevertheless, overall the film is quite wonderful, its assets far exceeding its many faults. This wasn't so obvious in TV airings throughout the 1970s and '80s, and in early home video releases, where the film's incredible look simply could not be appreciated. Another Bond veteran, Ken Adam, designed the many marvelous, spacious sets, which look just like something out of a children's book. Locations chosen for the film's exteriors are excellent, particularly Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, standing in for Baron Bomburst's fortress.
The musical numbers were generally lambasted by critics, perhaps a response to the film's over-confident ad campaign, promising "the most fantasmagorical musical entertainment in the history of everything!" I mean, really! The history of everything? Even the film's trailer previewed each original number like it was already a revered standard. But time, the ultimate test, has vindicated the Shermans. The title song is popular all over the world, especially in Japan. "You Two," sung by Caractacus to his children, is simple and pleasant, and "Posh!" wonderfully performed by Jeffries, is in keeping with the film's Dahl-esque tone. A merging of two earlier songs, "Doll on a Music Box" and "Truly Scrumptious," is lovely though children are as likely to be bored.
Other than Jeffries's Teddy Brewster-like Grandpa Potts, the character everyone seems to remember from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is ballet dancer/choreographer Robert Helpmann's genuinely disturbing Child Catcher. A prosthetic nose and stringy black hair enhancing his already creepy, cadaverous face (even in The Red Shoes, 20 years before, he was an odd duck), particularly his alarmingly bloodshot, bug-eyed peepers, Helpmann was an inspired choice, his dancer's grace further adding to the menace. His screen time is disappointingly limited but still ranks among the all-time scariest movie villains. (When the film was adapted as a 2002 London musical, extremely popular there but which tanked on Broadway, Richard O'Brien was cast as the Child Catcher, a good choice.)
Video & Audio
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was shot in spherical 65mm format (70mm for theatrical prints), here called Super Panavision as that company provided the lenses and cameras, but which was basically the same as Todd-AO, the better-known process (at least as Todd-AO existed in the late-1960s). The result is an extremely sharp, steady image along the lines of similar 65mm titles released thus far to high-def: South Pacific (1958), The Sound of Music, Grand Prix (1966, in HD DVD only), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Patton (1970). (I recently saw West Side Story and Hello, Dolly! on a high-def channel here in Japan; they, too, look spectacular. The transfer on Hamlet, 1996 and filmed in Panavision System 65, is extremely disappointing.)
The detail is just incredible, especially in wide shots and tight close-ups, where landscapes and actors' faces, pebbles on a beach, the texture of the costumes and make-ups on the actors, really take on an almost 3-D look. In Vulgaria viewers can note the extreme detail given to even the extras' costumes and grotesque make-up and hairstyles, or in Ken Adam's highly imaginative set design.
Another benefit of this pristine transfer is that now, with the color and contrast properly balanced, the special effects aren't nearly the disaster Maltin (see above) and others have claimed. I remember the process shots looking pretty poor in TV airings, but here many of the visual effects are near-flawless, especially several mattes most won't even notice are actually paintings or composites.
Roadshow presentations of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were also in six-track magnetic stereo, with fully directional dialogue and superb fidelity that, to my ears at least, home theater audio still can't quite surpass. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio comes awfully close, however. It's extremely strong for what it is, really maximizing the audio in every scene. Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital and French 5.1 DTS tracks are also included, along with subtitle options in all three languages. Not listed in the packaging but also included are audio options in Portuguese, German, Russian, Czech, and Polish, and subtitles in those languages plus Italian, Cantonese, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Indonesian, and Turkish. My Japanese PlayStation 3 defaulted to hidden Japanese language and subtitle options as well.
The film was preceded by a brief overture, includes an unusual cliffhanger intermission break, entr'acte, and exit music, all of which are included here. The disc is region free and comes with a region 1 standard DVD of the film in 16:9 enhanced widescreen.
Supplements are nearly all older extras ported over from the November 2003 Special Edition DVD release: "Remembering 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' with Dick Van Dyke," "A Fantasmagorical Motorcar," "Sherman Bros. Demos" featurettes; a trio of vintage promotional shorts; trailers (one bumped up to HD) and a photo gallery (ditto). What's new is of little interest to anyone over the age of 10: two games, "Chitty Chitty's Bang Bang Driving Game" and "Toot Sweet Toots Musical Maestro." "Sing-Along" and "Music Machine" are karaoke-style extras similar to what appeared on the earlier DVD edition, bumped up to high-definition.
While even the added splendor of Super Panavision 70 photography in 1080p high-def can't make Chitty Chitty Bang Bang any better or worse than it already is, the added clarity does make several of the film's major assets more perceptible, perhaps enough to turn a few more hostile critics over to its largely unacknowledged achievements. Though flawed, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang succeeds far more than it fails, good reason why it's still quite popular all these decades later.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.