Ken Hughes’ 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is undeniably a film much-loved by children of all ages. With songs by the Sherman brothers, a screenplay based on an Ian Fleming novel, Dick Van Dyke in the starring role, Albert Broccoli producing, and Ken Adam as the production designer (among other things) the film does have a lot going for it. It also features a script by the children’s author Roald Dahl (along with Hughes), but it is that screenplay more than anything else which lets the film down. There is truly a lot to like about the film and if you’re the type of person for whom the songs and dances are far more important than the story you will enjoy it wholeheartedly. If you want a film with more of a well-crafted story you may find Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a little wanting.
It all starts off well enough, with two young children, Jeremy (Adrian Hall) and Jemima Potts (Heather Ripley) falling in love with an old beater of a car and then nearly getting run over by a nice lady (Sally Ann Howes) out for a drive. She would be the love interest for Jeremy and Jemima’s father, Caractus Potts (Dick Van Dyke), not that either of them know it yet even if it is apparent to even the smallest member of the audience.
For the first half of the movie we see Caractus Potts fail with one invention after the next after the next and slowly, so slowly, become more friendly with the nice lady, Truly Scrumptious, whose father owns a candy factory. Everything is actually wonderful about the first half of the movie, it is a small cute would-be love story and the inventions Caractus comes up with may not quite work but they’re quirky and great to watch. The only thing Caractus does (outside of raising his kids) with any success is restoring the car his children fell in love with, which they all name Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Things do start to head downhill though just prior to the intermission when, for no reason in particular, the film decides to introduce a bad guy. With Potts’ need for money, need for a female influence with his children, and desire to actually be successful as inventor there is certainly enough conflict in the film. Prior to the introduction of the main villain, the film in fact can be considered more of a series of vignettes organized around the various inventions Potts is trying to make work. After the introduction of the villain, there is only a single tale and while it’s a good enough story, there is still something distinctly odd about it taking as long as it does and being given the level of importance it is given.
The change is, in short, a jolting one. The film has gone one far too long at that point for that which came before it to be merely an introduction, but apparently it is little more than that.
The problem is worse than that however, as the main thrust of the movie, the second half simply isn’t as well fleshed out as it needs to be in order to be successful. As another vignette it would work but when it’s given more than an hour of screen time more is to be expected. As an example, the villain, Baron Bomburst, is played with great comic effect by Gert Frobe (as Broccoli produced the film it is loaded with folks who worked on the Bond franchise), but Bomburst’s motivations for anything – including his wanting to murder his wife (Anna Quayle) – are never explained. And, if Bomburst hates kids to the point where he has outlawed them, why exactly has he kept around a toymaker, even if the toymaker is played by Benny Hill.
Enough of the issues with the Swiss cheese plot, such a discussion, while relevant, destroys any enjoyment one will have watching the movie, and there really is a lot to enjoy. Dick Van Dyke, as he did in Mary Poppins, proves once again that he can sing and dance, and the Sherman brothers prove for the umpteenth time that they can write a catchy tune. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang may be best for the undemanding, but anyone who likes child-friendly musicals will like what they see and hear.
What everyone will be able to agree on, demanding or not, is that FOX has done a fantastic job restoring the movie for this Blu-ray release. The picture looks excellent, with lots of detail and little noticeable noise and no scratches. There are moments when it appears to flicker a little, and there are certainly thick lines visible around all the foreground objects during any scenes with green screen work. The sound too will leave folks with little to complain about. The biggest issue with the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is that it can be slightly jolting when dialogue segues into music.
The Blu-ray release is a two-disc set, with the second disc containing a DVD copy of the film. In terms of special features, beyond some previously-released material, it contains a sing-along version of the movie, two different games, demo audio tracks of the Sherman brothers singing songs, a photo gallery, and the ability to simply skip to the musical numbers. There are also two featurettes, one which spends its time with the owner of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and another in which Dick Van Dyke talks about the film. All the features are relatively standard things, but hearing the Sherman brothers sing the songs is really very good.
In the end, no matter how poor the plot actually might be, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang does do a lot of things right. From the music to the acting to the dancing and nonsensicalness of everything that takes place, it is an enjoyable film for everyone (except maybe if you’re a young child and fear the Child Catcher who tries to kidnap the kids). The plot problems may stop it from being a great movie, but it certainly is a timeless one.