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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Special Edition, on DVD

Who’d have thunk that Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, wrote a classic children’s book? And who’d have thunk that Albert R. Broccoli, producer of James Bond movies, would have brought the book to the big screen?

Well it happened, and Broccoli really pulled out all the stops to bring the tale of an inventor, his family, and their flying car, to the movies. He hired an Oscar-winning songwriting team, acclaimed author Roald Dahl to co-write the script, and top notch acting talent led by the great Dick Van Dyke.

So why does the film not quite work?

We aren’t sure.

There seems to be something missing, a “spark” perhaps, the same sort of thing that made Mary Poppins great but Doctor Doolittle and “Chitty” merely good.

Still, one can’t complain too much about it merely being good instead of great, and this movie is, indeed, good entertainment for the whole family.

Van Dyke is Caractacus Potts, zany inventor of Rube Goldberg-like devices (among many other things). His inventions seem more interesting than workable, but that’s okay - he means well (and isn’t that all that counts?). He lives on a farm with his two charming kids, a male and a female, and Grandpa Potts (wonderfully played by Lionel Jeffries).

The kids are used to playing in an old junker of a race car at a nearby junkman’s, but when the junkman sells the car and the new owner is going to have it crushed, they run home to cajole dad into buying the car for them.

Alas, Potts is more inventor than businessman and he’s broke - but he has one creation, a candy confection you can use as a whistle, that he thinks has commercial potential. The local candy tycoon, Lord Scrumptious (James Robertson Justice), however, isn’t impressed, especially when the “Toot Sweet” turns out to attact dogs, huge numbers of which converge on his factory and wreak all kinds of havoc.

Meanwhile, the kids have befriended Lord Scrumptious’ daughter, Truly (Sally Ann Howes) and though they get off on the wrong foot it isn’t hard to see that Truly and Caracticus will eventually fall in love. They have to! It’s that kind of movie!

To make what’s actually an overlong story short (maybe that’s one of the movie’s problems: it’s too long, or at least it seems too long), Potts buys the car and works his creative magic on it. The result is a lovely motor vehicle that, until we enter a long fantasy segment, seems to have a single claim to fame: it makes a funny “Chitty, Chitty” noise, followed by a couple of backfires.

But there just happens to be that long fantasy sequence coming., and it seems to come out of left field and is likely to confuse the kiddies as to what’s the “real” story and what’s the “story in the story.” Hell, we’re supposedly grownups and we had trouble…

The fantasy, a tall tale recounted by Potts at a seaside picnic, involves the evil Baron Bomburst (Gert Frobe, in a real departure from his famous role as Goldfinger). Bomburst has banned children from his kingdom and runs what’s basically a crummy place to be - though it’s certainly beautiful!

This fantasy element starts out like a pirate story but ends up being a rescue mission. Baron Bomburst wants Chitty (and who wouldn’t?) and, thinking he’s kidnapping the inventor, ends up bagging Grandpa instead. So Potts and Truly and the two kids take off (literally, kind of) in Chitty, heading to Bomburst's land of Vulgaria to rescue Grandpa.

Once there, the kids get napped by the kingdom’s wicked Childcatcher, while Potts and Truly are aided in their now triple rescue attempt by the local toy maker (Benny Hill, believe it or not, and he’s very good).

It’s all quite predictable, yet entertaining enough.

We wonder why director Ken Hughes allowed Van Dyke not to use a British accent. He sounds American, yet the kids and Grandpa (and everyone around them who isn't a Vulgarian) are obvious Brits. When Van Dyke played Bert in Mary Poppins, he put on a workable accent, though he did take some heat about it back then if memory serves us. But it did make him more believable in the context of the movie; having one American accent in a sea of Brtis may have been one thing that helped destroy of suspension of disbelief.

But overall, the cast is excellent - we especially enjoyed Jeffries who, according to Van Dyke in one of the extra featurettes, was actually younger than his supposed son. Howes is pretty and has good presence and is a lovely songbird. Frobe seems out of place, but maybe it’s just us and our "typecasting" of him as Goldfinger.

The songs are good, too, and besides the title tune include the dance number "Me Old Bamboo", "Toot Sweet", our favorite "P O S H”, and the syrupy "Truly Scrumptious."

Well, even with its warts it’s still nice to see a family film with no bathroom humor (except, perhaps, for Grandpa’s office), no overt sex and/or violence, and that childlike innocence that seems so rare these days.

MGM has given Chitty a really nice DVD presentation with this Special Edition. It’s a two disc set that includes both anamorphic widescreen (16x9 TV compatible) and Pan&Scan. They’re on opposite sides of the same disc, which is fine unless you can’t read the little red letters around the spindle hole that tell you which version’s which.

The picture features a new digital high definition transfer, and the quality is excellent. The image is sharp (so sharp you can pick out the flaws in the 1968-vintage special effects, unfortunately!), and colors are wonderfully bright and rich.

Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, supposedly. We don’t recall hearing anything from the rear channels, but the front three channels are used very well. The orchestra is spread nicely across the front stage and the overall audio quality is very good considering the 1960’s-era analog origins.

Extras abound on the two disc set. Disc one features the movie as well as a trailer for “Chitty” the musical (which actually looks pretty good) and a singalong feature which basically gives you karaoke-like captions you can use to accompany the many songs with your own particular brand of warbling.

Disc two has plenty more truly scrumptious stuff. Perhaps best is “Remembering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” a retrospective featuring Dick Van Dyke’s fond memories. There’s also a featurette “A Fantasmagorical Motorcar" on the actual car used in the film.

Lesser features, but which are still worth seeing, include a read-along featurette, demos of the Sherman Brothers' (who also did Mary Poppins) songs, another featurette, this one called "The Ditchling Tinkerer," a vintage interview with Dick Van Dyke, “The Potts Children's featurette,” a gallery of vintage advertising, interactive games, and DVD ROM stuff.

And the package itself includes a 32 page book version of the story.

It’s a very full package and a very good DVD. We only wish the movie were truly more scrumptious.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Special Edition DVD, from MGM Home Entertainment
145 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.20:1, 16x9 TV compatible)/Pan&Scan, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes, Lionel Jeffries
Produced by Albert R. Broccoli
Written by Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes, Directed by Ken Hughes

 

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