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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.
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 Albert R. Broccoli 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. Come to think of it, screewriter Roald Dahl wrote Twice as well, and Chitty seems to have substituted that movie for Fleming's original story, where Potts already has a wife.
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 this film 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, eye-rolling reaction.
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 somebody'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). Although 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 what counts.
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 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:
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.