Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Blu-ray
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 magical car, to the movies. He hired the Oscar-winning songwriting team of the Shermans, 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 property with his two charming kids, a male and a female, and Grandpa Potts (played wonderfully 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 attract 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 Caractacus will eventually fall in love. They have to! It's that kind of movie!
To make what's actually an overlong story shorter (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 its mountain setting is 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 good here).
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 Brits 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 fabulous Blu-ray presentation. The 1080p picture, at an aspect ratio of 2.20:1, is absolutely flawless. It looks as if this movie were shot yesterday, digitally - it's that good. The colors are rich, the image is sharp and detailed and there's good depth. Would that all older movies on Blu-ray looked this good!
Likewise, the audio is equally spectacular. It has been mixed to a dts HD Master Audio 7.1 track and though it's mostly located in the front, there's some delicious surround use as well, right from the opening car racing scenes. Dialogue comes through very clearly, when you can understand the characters' accents, and the musical score sounds dynamic and very clean.
Extras abound, including a second disc that's a DVD presentation of the film.
The Blu-ray also features a karaoke-style Sing-Along with or without scrolling lyrics, Chitty Chitty's Bang Bang Driving Game - where you use the left and right buttons on your remote to steer the car through different courses, and another game "Toot Sweet Toots Musical Maestro" in which colored sweets appear on the screen, and you have to memorize the order and then press the corresponding red, green, blue, or yellow buttons on your remote - kind of like a video version of that old game (Simon?).
"Remembering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Dick Van Dyke" is a pretty interesting feature in which the star reminisces about the making of the film, with clips illustrating it. A Fantasmagorical Motorcar gives us Pierre Picton, owner of two of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cars, talking about how he got involved.
There's also about a half hour's worth of Sherman Brothers demos, where the brothers perform their "work in progress" songs, some vintage featurettes and advertising, and a photo gallery.
It's a very full package and a very good BLu-ray. We only wish the movie itself were truly more scrumptious.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Special Edition DVD, from MGM Home Entertainment
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.