Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Several years ago there was a substantial uproar among the web-based DVD fans (who at the time were
up at arms about DIVX and the lack of product from studios like Fox and Paramount) when MGM released
a pan-scanned (and squeezed) disc of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For many viewers, this
overblown but colorful and well-intentioned children's film is a special event, and the studio
has finally brought it out in an appropriately outsized special edition.
Inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) tries to make his children Jeremy
and Jemima (Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley) happy by restoring an old racing car that the
kids call Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. On a picnic with Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) the
kids ask for a story, so Caractacus tells a whopper about his father Grandpa Potts (Lionel
Jeffries) being kidnapped by an evil Baron Bomburst (Gert Fröbe) and his Baroness (Anna Quayle)
to a far off Evil land where children are imprisoned by a boogeyman called the Child Catcher
I've been assured that the original book of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is
a charming delight, but the movie seems like a wicked joke by Ian Fleming to do a perverse riff
on his James Bond franchise. The parallels between this movie and the Bond films go pretty
deep, from the idea of a gimmick-laden car to the presence of Auric Goldfinger in the cast. Author
Stuart Galbraith once worked out a long list; from it I remember the fact that the name Truly
Scrumptious was a G-rated takeoff on Pussy Galore. Near the end, the villains try to escape via
a slide-chute, possibly the same one seen in You Only Live Twice.
Stuart is slightly younger than Savant, and I chalk up his interest in the film to his general
interest in the Bond world, and his age. People born between 1958 and 1962 seem to love
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and remember with delight being taken to it, playing the
record incessantly, etc. This contrasts with Savant, who was 16 when it came out - the likes of
was anathema. A neighbor lady offered nicely to take me to Dr. Doolittle, which I think
came out in the same year; both she and my mom knew I was a teenager at last by my withering,
So let me catalog my objections to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the understanding that my
sour opinions need not dissuade anyone from enjoying it.
1) It's a kid film invented by adults that's got totally warped ideas about kids. It takes place in
a nonsensical goody-goody land that makes no sense, parenting-wise; the blonde white kids get it
into their heads that they want a magic car and Daddy moves heaven and Earth to get it for them.
Their response to all situations is bored glumness or ecstatic glee. Instant gratification is the
only joy: "Yay!
Yay! Daddy! Daddy! Hooray!" They stand stock still and sing songs, managing to smile horribly
in all situations, and they never get dirty. They're Ian Fleming's idea of kids, I suppose.
2) The (film) plot is trite and meaningless. Caractacus goes through hoops, dancing at a circus and
upsetting a candy factory just to please his blonde brats. The main body of the film is an extended
fantasy that means less than nothing. The super car Chitty has no personality, rhyme or reason,
except as a magical device that does things like swim, fly and come to rescue as needed, a perfectly
pointless gimmick. The villains have none but the thinnest motives for what they do - the kingdom's
children are imprisoned just because the King and Queen are 'naughty.'
3) The characters are annoying. Caractacus is rude to Truly for no good reason than to provide a contrast
for when he falls in love with her later. Lovable Lionel Jeffries is wasted as Grandpa, as is Benny
Hill, although both give it their all. Gert Fröbe
and Anna Quayle do their best with unlikeable, one-note villains. Their various henchmen and minions
aren't funny, especially those awful spies that seem to be in a Road Runner cartoon.
The only really successful character is Robert Helpmann's Child Catcher, mainly because he moves
so well. And even he comes off as a unhealthy variation on a child molester.
4) The production. The art direction is precious and pretty but not interesting. Ken Adam's sets
are gargantuan and unimpressive. The special effects
are pretty terrible; at that time the Bond films were good at lavish sets but awful in the opticals
department (check out
You Only Live Twice again sometime).
released as a 70mm roadshow, the traveling mattes had to be done in 35mm and blown up, and all those
(blue-screen?) composites exhibit as much distracting blue fringing as
Flight of the Lost Balloon.
So, enough of the sour grapes ... plenty of kids love Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and that's
Dick Van Dyke must have welcomed the opportunity to cash in on his family-friendly image, and isn't
bad at all doing what must be done to keep the Caractacus character on its feet. He supplies
enough double-takes, quizzical looks and clownish smiles to make us think there's a character there.
He can barely sing and dance, but is given good assistance by his Mary Poppins choreographers
Dee Dee Wood and Mark Breaux, a clever pair that tailor the dancing to the few moves Van Dyke
can do. Note that he mostly prances and kicks his heels to the music in the early dance numbers;
he's much better at jokey mime for the final music box bit, perhaps the best scene in the movie.
I think Sally Ann Howes does a fine job as well. A classy lady with a long line of performances in
British films, she was no spring chicken (she plays a sassy teenager in 1945's
Dead of Night) but she looks appropriately
grand and beautiful. If only the material weren't so thin. All she's called upon to do is smile
broadly and exhibit a string of surprised reactions.
The music to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is truly weak, from the migrane-inducing title song to
the sappy ballads. I have a hard time believing that tots sat still during
Hush-a-bye-Mountain. The Bombursts' Chu-Chi Face is doubly weird for its sadism and
sexual content. Goldfinger, I mean, Bomburst is trying to kill his wife, and Anna Quayle's costume
and manner are more kinky than cutesy. This is kid's stuff?
MGM's Special Edition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will delight those who don't share
Savant's allergic reaction to the picture. The clever folding package contains a storybook
of the tale adapted from the original premiere program (correcting odd errors that the program
had, incidentally). Dick Van Dyke provides reminicences in a light featurette about the
making of the film, and there's a shorter piece about one of the surviving prop cars, now kept
by an ex-circus clown in Stratford-on-Avon and wheeled out only to be polished or to make public
appearances. Older featurettes from 1968 are included: Van Dyke fields questions, the kids engage
in some PR nonsense, and we check up on the workshop of the mechanical artist who designed and
fabricated Caractacus Potts' fanciful inventions. There are sing-along and read-along features
appropriate to the film's target audience, and some coloring pages too.
Sober students of the film (?) may not find enough serious content here, but fans of the Sherman
brothers will enjoy there one extra, a selection of music demos from their film score.
The transfer is colorful and sharp and looks plenty wide on a large screen. There's also a pan-scan
version, which I believe is a new one made when the film was mastered to HD and not the old
squeezed version from the previous disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang rates:
Movie: Good -
Supplements: Storybook, Sing-along feature, Chitty The Musical sneak peek,
Remembering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Dick Van Dyke new featurette, A Fantasmagorical
Motorcar new featurette, Read-along featurette, Sherman Brothers song demos, The Ditchling
Tinkerer 1968 featurette, Original 1968 Van Dyke interview, The Potts Children 1968
featurette, advertising gallery, 2 interactive games, DVD-ROM printable coloring pages
Packaging: folding double plastic and card case in card sleeve
Reviewed: November 1, 2003
1. Savant edited the two new featurettes on the
disc. Cutting to and with the music score was a lot of fun, so I guess I shouldn't have been such
a sour crab about the rest of the movie. People love it, Savant.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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