I used to love Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Well, to be more exact, I used to always think that I loved Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was a holiday TV viewing staple, and I would always look forward to watching it. And then it would actually all play out, and young, easily-distracted, me would start to get bored. Ever since then, I have always assumed that the problem lay with my fidgetiness, typical of children who make demands that their entertainment avoid the lulls associated with more boring fare that adults watch.
It turns out that the problem doesn’t lie with me. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a decent family film, but it’s a seriously flawed one, saved from harsher criticism by a few enduring highlights, and one of the greatest villains in all of cinema history.
The story, as everyone remembers it, is about the titular vehicle, a car that can drive, float, and, of course, fly. But anyone tuning in for the star of the show may feel a bit disappointed, because the car doesn’t appear in all of its glory until about 50 minutes in (a credit sequence showing how it had a grand racing career previous to becoming a chunk of scrap metal notwithstanding). And when it does finally appear, it’s not onscreen for all that long. The main story is, in fact, all about an inventor named Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke), who struggles to make ends meet with a number of unsuccessful inventions. After his children (played by Heather Ripley and Adrian Hall) plead with him, he scrapes together enough money to buy the car, and sets about transforming it into something quite gorgeous. Speaking of quite gorgeous, the Potts family keep encountering a young woman named Truly Scrumptious (played by Sally Ann Howes). And the four of them end up sitting in the car together while Caractacus tells them a fantastical tale that takes up well over an hour of the runtime.
Directed by Ken Hughes, who helped write the script with Roald Dahl (and some additions from Richard Maibaum), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang still contains moments of greatness, but they’re mired in an oversized, clumsy, framework that can barely hold together in anything like a cohesive form. Viewers will remember the main song – our fine four-fendered friend – and they’ll certainly remember the Child Catcher (played so brilliantly by Robert Helpmann). There’s also the wonderful sequence in which Van Dyke and Howes portray a pair of life-size dolls. “Toot Sweets” is a fun musical number, as is “Posh!” My personal favourite, however, is “Me Ol’ Bamboo”, which pairs up the fun lyrics by Robert B. Sherman and Richard B. Sherman with some sublime choreography. Less enjoyable moments include “You Two”, the song all about “Truly Scrumptious”, the cringe-inducing “Chu-Chi Face” (although that number features some fun physical work by the Baron and Baroness, played by Gert Fröbe and Anna Quayle), and a number of scenes that feature two incompetent spies.
All of the cast do well enough, with Van Dyke and Howes suitably sweet and lively leads. As well as those already mentioned, Lionel Jeffries is great as the grandpa, Benny Hill has a small role as a toymaker, and James Robertson Justice gets a couple of decent moments. The kids are okay, although written to be a bit too wide-eyed and cutesy, but at least a bit of edge is brought to the proceedings by Helpmann.
Despite my complaints, there’s still enough here to make for an enjoyable family movie experience. Just be warned that children may get a bit fidgety while any other adults watching the thing may, just like myself, start to question their nostalgic memories.
DIRECTOR: KEN HUGHES
WRITER: ROALD DAHL, KEN HUGHES, ADDITIONAL DIALOGUE BY RICHARD MAIBAUM, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY IAN FLEMING
STARS: DICK VAN DYKE, SALLY ANN HOWES, LIONEL JEFFRIES, GERT FRÖBE, ANNA QUAYLE, BENNY HILL, JAMES ROBERTSON JUSTICE, ROBERT HELPMANN, HEATHER RIPLEY, ADRIAN HALL
RUNTIME: 144 MINS APPROX