Having been released on 10 November 2003, Eamonn McCusker reviews MGM’s 2xDisc Special Edition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and looks back at this most fantastical of children’s films…
Whilst Ian Fleming’s novels were famously optioned and produced by Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli as the James Bond movies, Broccoli was also sufficiently interested in Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a magical children’s book about a flying car to produce a film based on it in 1968. Whilst Fleming’s and Broccoli’s names are there in the credits and Ken Adam designed the sets, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is almost as far from 007 as it is possible to get. Except that is, for Gert Frobe playing a megalomaniacal foreigner obsessed with increasing his already substantial wealth, much as he did in Goldfinger. So not really that different from 007 then…
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opens with the Grand Prix of 1908, which ends with the car that will eventually be reborn as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang lying by the roadside on fire. Years later, it rests in a scrap yard with Jemima and Jeremy playing in it and who are present when its current owner, Goggins (Llewylen) agrees to sell it for 30 shillings.
Being somewhat attached to the old machine, the two kids convince Goggins to let their dad, Caractacus Potts (van Dyke), buy the car should he raise the same amount. Despite the optimism of the children, Potts is a loving father but lives from day to day on odd jobs and what he makes off his inventions. Caractacus, though, can see how much the car means to his children, particularly when they offer him their ‘diamonds’ and ‘gold crown’ to sell, and tries time and again to raise the money needed to buy the old motor from Goggins.
After a successful night at a fair, having raised just enough to buy the car, Caractacus disappears into his work shed all day and night only to emerge a few days later with the car now buffed up and ready to drive. With the kids ready for a picnic and with the car making its signature Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sound, Caractacus heads for the beach but not far from the shore is the boat of the evil Baron Bomburst from the kingdom of Vulgaria. Having spied Caractacus driving his car not only on land but, magically, on water, Baron Bomburst vows that he too will have a floating car no matter what it takes…
Depending on how long it is since you’ve seen the film – and it is shown at least once a year on BBC Television so you’ve little excuse not to have seen it recently – watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang can be surprising. Mostly that’s due to just how long the film is – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang pushes 2hrs 20min, which is a significant running time for a kids movie – but also how dark and frequently adult the subject matter is. Whilst kids may see little more than colourful characters, notably Lionel Jeffries’ Grandpa or the bustling bureaucrats that surround Baron Bomburst, there is a wealth of detail and satire in the film that ought to ensure it appeals to both big and little kids equally.
What is not known to many – and certainly not to this reviewer who always assumed, given Fleming’s reputation, that he was a bachelor ’til his death – was that Ian Fleming was not only married to Lady Anne Rothermere but also had a child, Casper. With that information, it’s not that difficult to imagine the author of the James Bond novels to sit down in Goldeneye and finally put to paper the stories he had been telling his own son. What is surprising, however, is that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has so much to say regarding the giving of one’s self over to one’s children.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has been split into three acts – the first ends with Caractacus taking possession of the car, the second sees Baron Bomburst attempting to steal the car and the third opens as Caractacus, Truly and the kids land in Vulgaria – and each one has something unique to say about the relationship between children and their parents as well as to society.
As the film opens, it is taken as given that Caractacus Potts is a good father but the first act says that sometime this simply isn’t enough and, despite his opinion to the contrary, sacrifices are often necessary to raise children. As Caractacus works hard to raise the 30 shillings necessary to buy the shell of a motor car from Goggins and despite his admission elsewhere that every penny he earns, he’ll spend on his inventions, he knows that he just put his own interests aside on seeing how much this car means to Jemima and Jeremy. With the second act saying that spending time with one’s children is just as important as spending money on them, the third reminds us that we must also give them hope and love for without all these, they are as lost as the children help captive underneath Baron Bomburst’s castle. To aid this breakdown of the film further, there is an intermission between the second and third acts, which break just at the moment Caractacus drives the car off a cliff as his Grandpa disappears into the clouds attached to Baron Bomburst’s Zeppelin. Throughout this three-act form, Truly is present to allow us to see that Caractacus allowing his children to run wild on country roads may not actually be best for them despite what he thinks. It is Truly, not Caractacus, who acts to bring a structure to Jemima and Jeremy’s lives and who finally completes their family.
So what are the highlights? Well, the songs are as good as place to start as any. Written by the Sherman brothers, who were also responsible for the songs in Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and Bedknobs And Broomsticks amongst others, the music is a joy from beginning to end and with MGM’s retaining of the intermission and the end music, this DVD holds on to the structure of the original cinema presentation. From the beautifully slow songs like Hushabye Mountain and Truly Scrumptious to the blasts through the title song, Me Ol’ Bamboo and The Roses Of Success, the music is marvellous. Best of all are P.O.S.H., which sees Lionel Jeffries being dumped in the sea as he sings of his eccentric dealings with overseas royalty and admiralty, and Doll on a Music Box, which has such a wonderful ending that it’ll break your heart.
Of course, this film would not have been quite what it is without the playing of Caractacus Potts by Dick van Dyke. Whilst any mention of van Dyke is usually disparaging as regards his cockney accent, most people forget what a graceful dancer and wonderfully comic actor he was and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang affords him the opportunity to show both of these talents of. Caractacus Potts is, at heart, a decent man but van Dyke plays up the physicality of the comedy to introduce a note of slapstick, most notable in his attempt to launch himself skywards with a backpack filled with rockets and his demonstration of a bicycle-powered hair-cutting machine at the fairground. As for his dancing, the performance of Me Ol’ Bamboo allows him to show that despite him being at least twenty years older than the rest of the troupe, he keeps up. Indeed, this performance has van Dyke’s most graceful moment as he strolls across the fairground spinning a hat on his bamboo cane whilst continuing to sing.
As much as the garish design, great songs and riotous slapstick of the performances will appeal to the kids, there are enough asides and a sufficient amount of very funny dialogue to amuse the adults. From Caractacus trying to leave the fairground in search of a mirror and muttering, “I’ll just go home and get you one” to Baron Bomburst’s numerous attempts to kill his wife, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has so much to offer adults, it’s a surprise that it’s not seen as a comedy classic. For adults, the standout moments are sure to be the Grandpa’s satire on Britain’s colonial past, the two spies who attempt to be the perfect English gentlemen, the disappointment felt by Baron Bomburst as his wife appears to prevent him having a little fun in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the fussing civil servants in Vulgaria and, of course, the child catcher. As played by Robert Helpmann, the child catcher is a gracefully sinister servant of the king and the moment that he merrily steps through the deserted town to draw out the children is one of the strangest from any film. The reputation that precedes the child catcher is a little excessive – he’s not as terrifying as you might have heard – but he does give Baron Bomburst the hint of darkness that he otherwise lacks.
What works best in the film, however, is the manner in which fantasy and reality is mixed. Whilst you might say that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is entirely fantastical, Caractacus Potts mixes his life with the children, the creation of the car and his romance with Truly into a wonderful tale involving the turning of a ship into a vessel captained by the evil Baron Bomburst. As the screen spins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang takes off into the water and to the skies, it becomes as joyous as any story told by a parent to their children and which blends a real-life family and love into a story of what they both mean. Much as a story told by Ian Fleming to Casper might have been written…
For anyone who has only ever seen this on television or on MGM’s existing pan-and-scan DVD release, this special edition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will be a revelation. Featuring a transfer of the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.19:1, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has never looked better outside of a cinema.
With the exception of an occasional mark on the print, and they are few and fleeting, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang looks terrific. The film is bright, clean and with an extraordinary deep palette of colours – the disc is equally capable when dealing with the colours on an English countryside summer as it is with the primary colours of Baron Bomburst’s infantry.
Just like the previous release, this version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang also comes with its soundtrack remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 but despite this normally meaning a gimmicky scattering of the sound around the room, the rear speakers add little to the experience of watching the film bar giving the soundtrack a little more presence.
With no commentary, most of the extras are included on the second disc but the full list of extras included on this Special Edition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are as follows:
A Fantasmagorical Motorcar Featurette (9m43s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): This opens with an interview with Pierre Picton, billed as the proud owner of GEN 11, the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car, but soon goes on to feature Pierre taking the car out on the streets of Stratford-Upon-Avon where he and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang now live. Pierre was once a clown and this does show with A Fantasmagorical Motorcar being largely for kids.
Vintage Advertising Gallery: This bonus feature includes the following trailers and TV spots from the time of the film’s release:
- Theatrical Trailer (3m01s, 1.85:1, 2.0 Stereo)
- French Original Trailer (3m27s, 2.19:1, 2.0 Stereo)
- Original TV Spot 1 (58s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo)
- Original TV Spot 2 (58s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo)
- Original TV Spot 3 (59s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo)
- Original TV Spot 4 (16s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo)
- Original TV Spot 5 (20s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo)
Remembering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (25m58s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): Despite only being an interview with Dick van Dyke, this is hugely interesting with van Dyke opening the interview by discussing Cubby Broccoli’s plans to make the film a couple of years after Disney made Mary Poppins, goes through the few differences between Ian Fleming’s book and the adaptation and closes with his thoughts on classic children’s stories. Along the way, van Dyke briefly describes each member of the main cast but, as one would expect, does not have a bad word to say about any of them. He does, however, have a great number of stories from behind the scenes and is as graceful an interviewee as he is a dancer in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The Making Of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang The Musical (9m59s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo): Opening with a little bit of history behind the original film, this moves on to a behind-the-scenes look at adapting the film into a musical, which opened in London in 2002.
Vintage Features: There are three features dating from the original release of the film included here:
- The Real Caractacus Potts (9m42s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo)
- Dick van Dyke Press Interview (8m26s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo)
- On Set With The Potts Children (9m42s, 1.33:1, 2.0 Stereo)
Sherman Brothers Demo: This bonus feature includes audio recordings recently uncovered allowing Richard and Robert Sherman to be heard performing their songs for the film during preproduction. Some of the songs – Please Please, for example – were dropped whilst others were adapted into the score but this is an interesting set of features from the archives. Each demo can be individually selected.
Interactive Games: There are four selections here, only two of which are games:
- One Person’s Junk Is Another Person’s Jalopy, which sees kids having to find the bits and bobs Caractacus will use to build his inventions and;
- Toot Sweet Special Delivery that requires the moving of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang around the screen to give sweets to kids
There is also a couple of easter eggs that give the viewer further information on the car.
Note that for even more enthusiastic collectors of this film than I, the DVD will also be available in a Limited Edition Collector’s Gift Set which also includes some great Christmas presents including a free Corgi Chitty Chitty Bang Bang model car as well as ticket voucher for the smash stage production currently playing to sold out houses at London’s Palladium Theatre.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is just marvellous, simply one of those films that can entrance the youngest of children as well as having enough depth in the screenplay to appeal to adults. As an example, my three-year-old daughter and I watch this film together and whilst she appreciates the songs, the dance numbers, the two charming kids and the cartoon villainy of the evil Baron Bomburst, the way in which Chitty Chitty Bang Bang draws in a story about the relationship between parents and their children is sufficient to ensure that I love it too.
Like Mary Poppins, which also starred Dick van Dyke, it’s the perfect film to go back and discover now and see how magical children’s films can be and which Disney and now Pixar capture so frequently. With great songs, a great story and the off-the-wall inventiveness of a Roald Dahl or a Lauren Child, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a superb film and this is one of 2003’s superior releases on DVD, commentary or not.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum