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What is it about stories featuring vicious cars with minds of their own?  Stephen King penned the classic thriller Christine, when told the tale of a ‘58 Plymouth Fury that vengefully murdered people.  David Hasselhoff battled the evil KARR and Lightning McQueen murdered Pixar’s exemplary track record.  But before all of these, James Bond author Ian Fleming was responsible for another story about an equally wilful automobile, whilst it did not have a licence to kill, it certainly seemed to be doing all it could to keep putting it’s occupants in mortal peril - a car suffering from Munchausen’s-by-proxy.

Don't blow your own horn too much, guys...

Yes, the bank-holiday favourite Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tells the story of Professor Caractacus Potts, his two sickly-sweet kids and a cracking piece of skirt (or should that be petticoat?) that they pick up on their adventures with the eponymous flying car.  Both the movie and the titular vehicle take their name from the haphazard onomatopoeic sound made by the engine of the Professor’s car - in the real world it would have been called something else, but we suspect if the most famous song in the movie had been based upon that, then the lyrics…

“Oh, you, Fucking Big End’s Gone
  Fucking Big End‘s Gone, we love you”


…would have seriously narrowed it’s target audience.

This review is going to assume that you have already seen the movie, so there might be some points raised which will only make sense of you have sat down and watched it at time point.  Still with us?  Cool - we knew there must have still been someone!  Right, here we go: Professor Potts is barely providing for his children through inventing things that nobody wants (if only he had been around in the present day, he would have cornered the market in making last-minute gift ideas, or failing that, home-shopping channels) whilst living with his deranged ex-army father, who seems to have sustained such psychological damage whilst serving in India that he would be labelled “dangerous“ under modern mental health guidelines.  After his edible whistle idea is rejected by confectionary baron Lord Scrumptious, Potts puts together his most incredible invention, that of a flying car which seems to have a mind of its own, and it soon whisks the family (and reluctant passenger Truly Scrumptious) off to the country of Vulgeria, where revolution and romance are in the air!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a curious movie, being a fitting companion piece to Dr Dolittle; they share similar traits in that they are expensive, extravagant, have numerous memorable musical numbers and that they are both movies which were critically ripped apart when they were released.  US film critic Leonard Maltin described Dr Dolittle as “totally forgettable” and called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang “one big Edsel.”  In Britain, the reception and general opinion is very different, where it’s viewed as the perfect accompaniment to a rainy bank-holiday afternoon.  For one of our Missus‘, it’s her movie of choice when she’s under the weather and just wants something to cheer her up.

We want one with three openings!

The original novel by Ian Fleming was a great read, but the fundamental problem with this cinematic interpretation lies in the structuring of the movie.  All of the characters are introduced in the standard fashion, but it then becomes a story-within-a-story, robbing the movie of suspension of disbelief (OK, we know it’s a film about a flying car, but there should still be a slight sense of suspense or verisimilitude) and you know that nothing serious will happen to the characters because the main body of the movie is a story being told to amuse the two kiddies in the movie.  Parents & kids alike were freaked out by a story about the kidnapping of children in land which mirrored the ultimate dream of Adolf Hitler, which might have been thought-provoking in the book, but comes across as bleak and frightening when transposed to film.  What could have made the movie even more terrifying and turn critics against it…?

Well, it’s gotta’ be the Child-Catcher.  Boasting an elongated nose, Mick Millar hair and large net, he pursues children and catches them like rats in his van cunningly disguised as a sweet-truck.  It is largely unclear about his motives for capturing the kiddies of Vulgaria, but you can bet that he frequently uses another kind of net to ensnare unwary children.  It’s a pretty safe bet that this unsavoury character will stay away from PC World should his computer ever develop a fault…  To have a character that is just brimming with nastiness in a children’s story makes you wonder if it was written by the Brothers Grimm or, failing that, Roald Dahl.

Well, why not try new things to perk up a tired sex life...

Gert Frobe settles for playing the stereotypically Germanic Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria, always eating, shouting and not possessed of an ounce of self control.  It’s hard to believe that this big-hearted guy, who once helped the persecuted escape from Nazi Germany during the war, would have allowed himself to accept such a  role in a movie destined to be as big as it was.  But Frobe plays it with such a sense of fun that he’s clearly sending up the exact type of arseholes who gave Germany a bad name in the last 100 years, and he’s a delight to watch.  Matching him is the Tony award-winning Anna Quayle as his wife, a woman clearly sick of all her husbands’ shit and putting up with him only to enjoy the lifestyle.  It’s no wonder the Baron makes numerous attempts to murder her during the ironic “(You’re My Little) Chu-Chi Face” number!

At its heart it just tries a little too hard to recapture the past successes of other Van Dyke’s Disney projects, most noticeably  Mary Poppins, with the “Me Ol' Bamboo” routine seeming like something thrown on the “reject” pile at the House of Mouse for being too obviously “loveable”.  It also has the dubious distinction of being a song all about the merits of stick-fighting, almost as though it was an attempt to subliminally gear little kids up to be part of a future fighting force should a global war ever break out again.  Sure, you can admire the technical precision of the choreography in the skit, but it all just seems like a hollow ploy to win over an audience in lieu of developing a character through dialogue & actions.  The song Truly Scrumptious is an exceptionally cloying ditty.  In the 60’s it was commonplace for audiences to be rewarded with little gifts for choosing to see a particular movie (magic seeds, free life insurance policy, guys n’ gals fake beards for Rasputin: The Mad Monk, etc).  Given the sheer volume of sugar in this particular ditty, maybe patrons should have been given a free tube of Colgate at the box-office.  If changes were to be made for a more cynical audience, surely Potts would discover the musical properties of toot-sweets via a stray fart after James Robertson Justice told him to stick them up his arse and get out of his factory.

Playing with Dad's whistle?  This isn't Arthur Mullard...

Speaking of the famed Toot Sweets sequence, you can read much into on a Freudian level.  James Robertson Justice (Truly’s father) spends his day surrounded by the women who work in his factory, and he is a deeply miserable man.  Along comes Dick Van Dyke who proceeds to put his whistle in Justice’s mouth, Justice gives is a good blow, and he is happier than he has ever been in his life.  A few minutes later, he is surrounded by a bunch of old dogs and he is back to being miserable again.  And this is a kiddies’ movie?

Freudian stuff aside, there is not much for the “dads” in the audience, and while it’s true that Sally Ann Howes is a rather good-looking lady, there is nothing more going on with her character than merely “sweet”.  There is a definite chemistry between her & Van Dyke, but nothing of the sexual variety - still, even if there had been those adult frissons, there would have been precious little they could have done about it.  Firstly, as most parents know, it is virtually impossible to have a sex-life with a couple of kids around and secondly, the clothes Howes wears in the movie would have hindered such advances.  As Sid James once said: “Blimey, it’s like peeling an artichoke”.  Having said that, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a convertible of sorts…

We’ve always had a bit of a problem with the works of the Sherman brothers, in that we find their songs rather smug.  Without said smugness, you might argue that they were merely “twee”, but if you dial down most of the tracks on the recording of their material, you can probably hear the snapping of bones as they pat themselves on the back.  We’ve always said of lyrics that if you have to stop and rationalise a rhyming couplet to make it work, then you’ve failed as a lyricist, and this is something the Sherman brothers have been guilty of so many times over the years.   Should we have to typify just what it is we dislike about their work, we point you towards the excised song from Mary Poppins “Chimpanzoo”, a truly smug number which probably only existed through one of them coming up with that particular pun, and committing the musical sin of building a number around something trivial in the script at the expense of screen time.  Here, their work is tolerable, with only a few ditties really getting on our titties.  Oh, and Me Ol’ Bamboo has a number of similarities to Chimpanzoo…

"ARGGGGH!!!!  MY FUCKING ARSE IS ON FIRE!!!!"

Many familiar thesps make cameo appearances, including fleeting turns by legendary gangsters’ moll  Barbara Windsor and the (gulp) unforgettable incestual paedophile Arthur "organic mushroom" Mullard.  Benny Hill shows his acting spurs as the Toymaker, the kindly custodian of the children of Vulgaria, and it’s a great pity that he didn’t pursue a serious acting career, as he certainly shows a fair degree of talent in a role that requires him to display quite a range.   Surely the Toymaker should have gone out of business when the Child-Catcher was turned loose on them, and his name is a bit of a giveaway that he is stashing the kids away for their own protection, but the pack-led Vulgarian storm troopers are too thick to piece the fragments of the obvious together.  Maybe he should change his business direction and become The Executive Stress-Buster Maker.

007 stalwart Desmond Llewellyn appears as the original owner of the titular car, though this is a world away from the ingenious gadgets of Q-branch.  If Major Boothroyd were to brief Bond on the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang it would probably go something along the lines of “Now pay attention, 007, this is your new car - a clapped-out heap-of-shit that will probably roll on a sharp turn and kill you because of the lack of a roof.  And under the chassis is something I’m particularly proud of - an insubstantial pair of wings that can unfurl to convert the car into an un-aerodynamic flying machine with no airbrakes. Be sure to return this equipment in one piece after the Vulgaria mission.”

Much has been made of how the movie is a regular “schedule choker” at Christmas - these are beloved of TV companies because they can guarantee a large audience, take up a big chunk of programming and all for a small price.  When watching it the last time, it occurred to us that the running time of the movie could be drastically shortened if you were to remove the bookend footage that roots the main body of the film in the realms of fantasy.  Such groundings harm the rest of the story, as mentioned above, removes any sense of peril thrust upon our hapless automobile-aviators.  Whilst the Child-Catcher will still scare the shit out of smaller kiddies, the older ones & adults are all-too-aware that nothing is going to happen to them.  Such a “fantasy-edit” would drop you right in the middle of a darker, more Grimm-like tale in which there are no certainties and all the safeties have been removed, leaving a much better movie.

Speaking of edits, when watching it again with The Missus, who is very familiar with the movie from seeing it on TV during the 80s & 90s, there came a revelation to her.  It seems that she was used to a copy circulating on UK TV which was drastically trimmed to fit the timeslots allotted to it - we aren’t talking a couple of little scenes snipped out, but huge great chunks lopped off!  The Missus has an almost photographic memory (trust me, she never forgets anything…) and she was gob-smacked when the songs “This Lovely Lonely Man” and “The Roses of Success” played, as though she was watching some extended director’s cut of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Yep, these ditties had been snipped from the prints she was more than familiar with, and material featuring Lionel Jeffries carried the majority of the edits, along with some interplay between the rulers of Vulgaria, the pieces with the spies and the stuff at the fair.  It was a delight to watch her combination of confusion and delight at the “new” material, and shows that TV channels in the UK could butcher a movie to fit a slot as well as US network television.  Oh, and said Missus insightfully called That Lovely Lonely Man the Cheer Up Charlie of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang...

"Quick - gob on Harry Saltzman's house!"

Image


Even those who shit on the movie would agree that it’s pretty tough to discredit the work that has gone into the transfer of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Everyone has memories of the lousy prints that used to play on TV during the seventies & eighties: pan & scan, rough-as-a-lolloping-bear’s arse, etc.  After the farcical release of a full-screen copy on DVD, and an apologetic widescreen edition later on, MGM has finally come through and delivered a copy of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that looks Truly Scrumptious (yeah, OK, we had to use that at some point) - the colours are vivid and clear, the print is ridiculously clean for a movie that is so reliant upon opticals.  Grampa Potts was obviously familiar with the Thin Red Line, but everyone who remembers this movie will remember the thin blue line - around everyone when the car is flying,  but this is no fault of this lovely transfer - they’ve always been there.

Everyone was popping their corks when The Hateful Eight was lensed in Super Panavision 70, and how gorgeous it looked, but it certainly isn’t the only example of how great the format looks on Blu-ray.  Here, the 1080p AVC-encoded transfer (taken from the 70mm materials) looks absolutely pristine, with the outdoor shots looking particularly wonderful.  The lavish sets, designed by regular Bond collaborator Ken Adam, look magnificent - the purples used in the sets and costumes during the Vulgaria section of the movie are wonderfully vivid.  That other 60s musical - you know, the one with the failing nun - was also shot using the same system, and when both are compared, it’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which walks away with the prize for best looking presentation.

You will notice that we have included caps contrasting the Blu with the 2-disc DVD release, so as to show just how much of a quantum leap the HD version is.  When trying to match them up, there was one Hell of a geometry problem, and with some faring better at pasting together than others.  It can be looked upon as the higher res edition proving just how consistent and authoritarian a transfer it delivers.

"Ground-to-air defences at the ready!"

Audio


The sound has been more smoothly remixed into a multi-channel presentation this time around, and while the DVD 5.1 mix was a commendable effort, it fell well-short of being a tweetable, eatable sound.  Here, the brand new DTS-HD:MA 7.1 track is everything you might have expected, with the music spread across the entire soundstage, with even some of the chorus voices being channelled to the surround speakers.  Dialogue is mainly anchored to the centre, and is pretty solid.  The fidelity is extremely pleasing, sounding the way you would expect some of the Beatles’ recording from the same period - and probably taped in the same studio!  The car happily chugs across the soundstage, and make sure you watch the pre-movie overture for some motor vehicles roaring their way through every speaker in your set-up!  

There are a couple of surprises to anyone who has only seen this movie on the small screen - included in this version is the musical intermission, which runs for about a minute and takes place on a cliff-hanger (literally!) and comes back with a brief recap.  Aside from the aforementioned overture, there is also the exit music after the end credits, which was designed to play as patrons were leaving the auditorium, having them vacating the cinema on a magical note.  A lovely throwback to a bygone age where going to the movies was an evening out, rather than the slaughterhouse-like process it is today.


Extras


Trailers and TV Spots: Sure, this is repeated from the 2-disc DVD edition, as are most of the extras, but this is not bad thing.  The most interesting of the coming-attractions is the French trailer that allows the viewer to glimpse a rare moment of the French attempting to be “wacky”.   Chitty Chitty Pan Pan, anyone? It has to be seen to be believed.  Educational too, as you learn that the French for fantasmagorical is in fact fantasmagorique.

A Fantasmagorical Motorcar: Another carry-over, it features a 10-minute featurette about the Pierre Picton current owner of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car.  We’ve seen an interview with him before and he comes across as a sweet-natured eccentric, and nobody does eccentrics like the UK - he worked on the movie and a few years later bought a couple of the cars used in the movie from Cubby Broccoli.  It is quite remarkable to see that after all these years, the car is in absolutely mint condition - we recall seeing it in the car-park of a movie memorabilia fair well over a decade ago.

Sing-Along with Movie: This allows more devote fans to sing-a-long with the popular musical numbers (and even the unpopular ones!).  This is a nice option, as not only do the lyrics appear, but they do so in karaoke fashion, with the words being illuminated when they are sung.  No more will you be without a sing-along version of the songs the next time a full-swing piss-up demands a round of show-tunes.  It should be noted that reviews of R1 editions of this set make mention of the sing-along option coming with a sans-dialogue & effects track, leaving the would-be Van Dykes and wannabe Howes’ to fill in the blanks.

Music Machine: Pretty much the same as above, but without the highlighted lyrics which allow you to sing along with it.  Kinda like a soundtrack album with visuals to go with it.

Remembering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Dick Van Dyke: OK, this is nearly 15 years old, but it’s possibly the most interesting of the extras, which has Dick Van Dyke reminiscing for about 25 minutes.  He mainly speaks of his fellow co-stars and how he got on with them, although he seems to be slightly diplomatic when speaking about the two kids.  He comes across as fairly affable, and manages to enchant the viewer to the point of almost forgetting that he was single-handedly responsible for every dodgy American attempt at a Cockney accent (even Jamie Oliver may have been inspired by Van Dyke).  The slightly flaccid Dick also lets it be known that he was one of the main people behind the decision to have the naff story-within-a-story idea.  He may be a languid Dick these days, but that doesn’t stop him using wanky modern terminology, saying that Professor Potts was somebody who “thought outside of the box.” Christ…

The Potts Children: Of the three vintage featurettes on the disc, the standout (just for sheer oddity’s sake) has to be this particular one about the two kids in the movie.  In almost a desperate bid to appease the child-welfare worker on the movie, Heather Ripley & Adrian Hall are shown frolicking on the set and having fun in between the long set-ups demanded by the business.  We’re not doubting the accounts on display here, but the supposed narration by the two kids are supplied by people who are 1) much older than they are supposed to be, and 2) not even from the same country, sporting mid-Atlantic accents.  It details how Van Dyke shadowed them around the locations, spying on their every move whilst dressed in lederhosen.  Van Dyke is shown cravenly drinking a glass of beer as he tries to remain inconspicuous, or more appropriately, an Anonymous Alcoholic.  We’re not saying a circumspect Dick is a creepy thing to watch, but any other middle-aged guy in leather shorts stalking a couple of pre-teens after a few drinks would have the Child Catcher’s number on his speed-dial…

The two kids were live in the studio on ITV’s This Morning show in 2003, and they had a live satellite link with Van Dyke from LA, and it was the first time he had spoken to them since the end of filming.  How did he thoughtlessly reopen the lines of communication between them?   “Gee, you two must be middle-aged by now…”, to which the very much grown-up Adrian Hall huffed: “Thanks…”

Dick Van Dyke Press Interview: From the vintage pile once again is a featurette in the form of an interview with Van Dyke.  Using just the one unbroken shot, this 8 ½ (closest it’ll get to Fellini) minute press-junket from 3 weeks into the shoot allows a rather grizzled-looking Dick to wax lyrical about mini-skirts, his induction into the movie and how there was no such thing as a hamburger in the UK, explaining how he had to go into butchers here and ask for mince instead.  What the fuck was it about US stars and getting burgers?  Both Harrison Ford & George Lucas were dreading coming over to the UK to shoot Return of the Jedi because of the lack of burgers in London.  But plucky old George was able to talk Ford out of an unexpected death in the hibernation process by explaining that a branch of McDonalds had just opened here.  Mmm, you just can’t beat that irresistible combination of gourmet cooking and artistic integrity…

The Ditching Tinkeler: The final promotional piece from the past interviews Rowland Emett, the aforementioned “Ditchling Tinkerer” - the man responsible for designing many of the whimsical contraptions that appear in the movie.   Much like Pierre Picton, Emett comes across as one of the archetypal great British eccentrics that walk that tightrope between eccentricity and madness, with a wife blithely understanding of such quirks.  A fun look at how much effort can go into seemingly minor details in a movie.

Sherman Brothers' Demo: Only rediscovered not that long ago, here are the demo tapes of the entire collection of songs from the movie.  Performed by composers Richard and Robert Sherman, they are a fascinating look at how the tunes were pitched to executives and provide a glimpse into a couple of songs that were either dropped entirely or merely used as an underscore.  The quality of the tapes are very good for their vintage, but it has to be said that the Sherman brothers did not possess of the most tuneful voices in the world, delivering such comparatively flat readings of the now-cherished songs that only the Dutch could be jealous of such dulcet tones.  Or Allan Sherman.

Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang‘s Driving Game & Toots Sweet Toots Musical Maestro: These are a couple of games for the kiddies, which include tests of mental agility and skill - it’s not a bad way of sneaking such things into something that kids will find enjoyable.  It would have been nice to thrown in something in the same vein to keep adults amused, such as a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang random porno-title generator, rather like those Shakespeare insult machines everybody got so spurty about not so long ago.   Hint: there are at least 6 variations.

Photo Gallery: This is also thrown in, containing something to the tune of 60 pics split between official publicity stills and production photos.  While they are admirably presented, it is very annoying that not a single piece of advertising made it into the gallery.  The way a movie is marketed around the world is one of the most entertaining aspects of a stills gallery, so it comes as a great annoyance for it to be absent from this anniversary edition of everybody’s favourite answer to the age-old joke: " what’s got four wheels, flies and stinks of shit?"

We all knew it...

Overall


Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of those movies which was berated by many critics during the initial theatrical run, but somehow grew in stature over the years to eventually be saddled with the title “classic” - even a crappy car like the Hillman Hunter automatically qualifies for the “antique” tag after 30 years, so it is no wonder that just shy of 50 year on, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is now possessed of the title classic.  There are certain to be many kiddies (and adults) out there who will still hold a place in their hearts for the plucky flying car that nobody saw back in 1968, and when watching it again, it really grows on you as a piece of decidedly dark nostalgia - the like of which would never be pitched at a family audience these days.

If you pick up a copy for yourself, it’ll be a trip down memory lane - if you buy it to keep the kids quiet this Christmas, it’ll be less irresponsible than doping them up with too much Calpol.  Well, that or scare the living shit out of them with the Child Snatcher.  He makes a great threat when the little sods won’t do as they are told, though…


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