Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Song & Dance | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: If you think you can handle a cheesy musical, just do me a favor. Fast-forward through the first hour. Seriously. You’ll thank me later. (And beware of the creepy Child Catcher – a bit scary.)

Anyone who thinks they can make a children’s movie with a running time of two-and-a-half hours needs to be smacked upside the head – or worse. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is guilty of this cinematic sin that stretches thin even the attention spans of adults, let alone kids. Despite this fact, the movie undoubtedly deserves an opportunity to make up for itself.

It is based on a book by Ian Fleming Chitty3(author of the James Bond series), with Ken Hughes and Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) filling in for the screenplay and Hughes also serving as director. The songs are provided by the Sherman Brothers (Mary Poppins and Jungle Book), who got an Oscar nom for the infectious titular tune. But we can hardly blame Hughes, Dahl, or the Shermans for the film’s first hour. It makes more sense to point a finger at the editor for not cutting that garbage, or whomever was responsible for forcing them to leave it in. I apologize for coming off so pissy, but I only do so because at the core of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang resides a very solid movie with a few great song and dance numbers.

It follows two children in the early 1900s living on a farm with their widowed father (Dick Van Dyke), a quirky inventor who is comically unsuccessful and tragically penniless. Van Dyke’s theatrical act is that of a clumsy (not creepy) clown with flawed parenting techniques, so kids’ll love him. They could probably do without the love interest, though, a candy empire heiress named Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes). But she’s got a great voice and without her entrance to complete the normal nuclear family, the sugar-coated ending would taste considerably less sweet.

The only things of potential interest in the Chitty2film’s first hour are the Toot Sweets sequence at the candy factory (not a great song, but what kid doesn’t love a candy factory?), and, even better, the comic bit at the carnival with the fantastic number Me Ol Bam-Boo. After you’re 60 minutes in, you finally get insight into the title, referencing a magical car that takes the foursome to the beach for a picnic. It’s at that moment that Van Dyke starts telling the kids a story about the Baron Bomburst (Gert Fröbe, best known as the James Bond nemesis Goldfinger), the ruler of Vulgaria who wants nothing more than the family’s car (well, that and his wife to die in a freak accident).

Suddenly we’re thrown into the story as it unweaves, with Bomburst in pursuit on a pirate ship and later a zeppelin as Chitty floats and flies to avoid capture. An eventual kidnapping leads the gang to the fictional land where they must rescue their grandfather, retrieve the car, and end the tyrant’s rule within his gigantic castle.

The working class township of Vulgaria is a land without children, and they must befriend the toymaker (Benny Hill) in the plot to defeat Bomburst. But they have more to worry about than that. Robert Helpmann’s greasy character of The Child Catcher terrified and traumatized a generation, notching a top five appearance on Channel 4’s “Scariest Movie Moments” and inspiring Marilyn Manson’s look and title for the Smells Like Children EP. He’s as smarmy a creepster as any you can imagine, traveling in a coach disguised as a candy cart (the pedophile minivan of yesteryear).

The final “heist” scene is classic, with the two adults disguising themselves as humanoid toy presents for the Baron on his birthday and singing Doll On a Music Box, another great song.

Chitty has aged ironically over the decades, with the combination of bad effects, trippy plot, and The Child Catcher leading to its cult status (it was a bomb at the time for going way over budget, only doing decently at the box office, and getting mostly poor reviews from critics). Indeed its cult success is so strong that Chitty is rumored to be due for a remake (I wonder if they’ll keep the line, “When I first came here, I was a midget.” Pure comic gold.).

As if I need to say it again, fast-forward an hour and you’ve got yourself a fantastic little adventure movie specifically tailored to the imaginations of primary school kids.

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