Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) Movie Review

     Some family films are timeless classics, others come and go, and there’s even those that were initially conceived as classics for their time, but haven’t exactly aged well. Such family films like “The Wizard of Oz”, “Mary Poppins”, and “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” are still beloved house hold titles, and have only gained more admiration over the ages. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you get something like the 1968 family musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, which I loved as a kid, and still regard as something of a classic in its own right, but admittedly, I don’t think it’s aged quiet as well as the previously mentioned films. It's actually kind of a mess with its delivery, and the script makes countless detours that just don’t click with a narrative story. The film undeniably has its moments that still shine, but without the nostalgia goggles on, dose “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” still hold up as a good movie?

    The film opens with a montage of European Grand Prix races in which a particular car wins every race, but in the final race, the car loses control, crashes and explodes. This opening gives the false impression that the movie will revolve around a broken car that will get one last chance to race again, probably on the same lines of something like Disney’s “The Love Bug”, but you’d be wrong.
The car is sent to the scrap yard where it’s discovered by two kids who want to take it home, but they better get some money, and soon before it gets sold to a guy that threatens to melt it down. The car centered story then hits the breaks as the two children come across a lady named Truly Scrumptious, who’s annoyed that the kids aren’t in school, and just aren’t being raised properly. Their father is Professor Potts, a crazy inventor of sorts who clearly loves his kids, but he keeps getting sidetracked creating machines that just never work. After several attempts to sell his inventions, make some money, and get along with Truly Scrumptious, our motor car finally comes back and gets a sweet makeover from our crafty inventor. However, the car went through more than just a shinny makeover, it can now fly, and even transform into a boat. The car soon gets the attention of a pirate, who aims to take the vehicle by force. After several failed attempts, he captures the families grandfather, and leads our hero’s to his Kingdome called Vulgaria. 

From this point, the film takes a 90 degree turn in both story and setting. Now the film becomes a fantasy adventure, and revolves around this Kingdome, which has outlawed children. Yeah, all the children are either imprisoned or surviving underground, avoiding the clutches of a nasty child catcher. When the professors own children get kidnapped, he leads both the town’s kids and their parents on a revolt against the evil king and queen. It all builds to a wild climax in which our hero’s invade the castle, get into sword fights, liberate the prisoners, and somewhere in this mess is a mechanical car that’s trying so hard to get some attention in his movie.

     See what I mean by inconsistent narrative, or even theme? The plot is just a mess, as if several different scripts were spliced together into one screenplay. I didn’t even mention all the pointless little detours, and side plots that are going on in the film. There’s also the dad trying to impress the owner of a candy factory, there’s grandfathers side adventure, and a sub-plot involving the kids trying to get our two leads to fall in love so they’ll have a complete family again. There’s another sub-plot involving two bumbling fools who are constantly failing to steal the motor car. Their antics are like a poor man’s version of a laurel and hardy sketch. To be fair, the scattered premise may have a lot to do with the source material. The film is based on the children’s novel called “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car”, but very loosely. The novel was written by the late Ian Fleming, who’s arguably best known for creating the famous 007 character, and launching the James Bond Novels. On that note, it should come as no surprise that “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was produced by Albert R. Broccoli, who co-produced most of the early James Bond movies. Anyway, I’m not familiar enough with the source material to call this a faithful adaption or not, but I will say that the great family films of old like “Mary Poppins”, and “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” all had a focused story, and any detours they might have taken still added up to a central theme. I don’t even know what the message of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is supposed to be, it’s a serious of fun events that function well enough on their own, but don’t really tie in with any central narrative.

     The most famous image the movie markets most is that of the flying motor car, but I have to admit, the flying car effects in the movie have not aged well at all, with obvious green screen outlines that really take you out of the moment. The car itself is still one of my favorite movie props I’ve ever seen. This motorcars colorful exterior design makes it feel iconic, and there’s just something really special about it whenever it’s on screen. I like the variety of things it can do, I also like that it has personality, despite not having a face or voice, and it’s probably my favorite character in the film. Unfortunately, unlike Herby the love bug, this movie really isn’t about the motorcar at all. Seriously, titling this movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is the equivalent of naming the first “Star Wars” movie “Space Ship Millennium Falcon”, and even that’s being generous. Still, Chitty is one of my favorite movie vehicles. The actual car scene in the film has been preserved over the years, and was eventually purchased by none other than “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson.  

     Well, let’s take a look at the other characters, most notably Professor Potts, who’s played by the always charismatic Dick Van Dyke. Now the movie introduces him in a rather unlikable way, as he’s oblivious to his children, doesn’t seem to care that their skipping school, and acts like a real jerk to Truly Scrumptious, who only had the children’s best interest in mind. Shortly afterwards, we do start to warm up to the guy, but he has no real reformation or anything, so why set him up like such a jerk in the opening? Of course it’s Dick Van Dyke who completely saves this character. The guy's just so naturally likable, and a real joy whenever he’s on screen. Our female lead is Truly Scrumptious, played by Sally Ann Howes, and once again, the character is generic, but the actress lends some genuine likability to the role. Julie Andrews was originally offered the part, but she turned it down thinking the role was too similar to “Mary Poppins”, especially sense she’d be reuniting with Dick Van Dyke. The kids are typical “movie kids”, the evil Barren and wife are generic over the top villains that get on my nerves, and the grandfather played by Lionel Jeffries is your typical loony grandfather.   


    Let’s finally talk about the most memorable character of all, that being the evil child catcher played by the late Robert Helpmann. He’s dispatched by the evil king and queen to round up all the children of the land, but he’s cleaver and knows how to draw them out with sweet treats. This is a rare case in which a small supporting villain completely upstages the main antagonist, and was the stuff of nightmares for kids. This guy’s got one of the best creepy designs ever, sporting a massive hat, all black attire and one hell of a disfigured long nose. He’s such a perfect offset to the films playful overtone, and even though he’s not in the movie for long, he still stands out for being the only creepy addition to the film. I’ll admit, he’s not on par with the really great family movie villains like the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” or Judge Doom from “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”. I honestly don’t even remember the child catcher scaring me too much as a kid, but the concept of a nasty man bribing children with sweets, followed by locking them in a cage is definitely unsettling on some level. If anything, this movie taught a generation of children to stay away from strangers with candy.   

    Another ace up the movies sleeve is its technical inventiveness. The effects really aren’t that impressive, but there’s some real imagination that goes into all these locations and sets, which are more than enough to win me over. It’s very colorful to look at, and every location has its own personality and charm. There’s the professors laboratory which is full of wild contraptions, the candy factory, and the castle with all its lavish interiors. My favorite prop by far is the professors cooking machine, which countless other children’s movies have tried to recreate, but failed to capture the same magic feel of this awesome contraption. Director Ken Hughes’s really knows how to highlight all the fantasy elements of the film, but I think the songs could have been shot and edited a little better.   

    Speaking of which, one of the biggest staples of any classic family movie of this sort are its musical numbers. In regards to this film, there’s only one truly great song that never fails to make me smile and that’s the “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Theme Song” itself. Seriously, no matter how old the film gets, this song still remains timeless, and deservedly got an Oscar nod. It’s one of those cheerful tunes that always get me whistling along with the melody or even singing along with the lyrics, which are memorable.

Even if you’ve never watched the movie, you’re probably still familiar with this song on some level. I remember most of my elementary school friends knew of this song thanks to Jim Carry, who parodied the song in the 1995 comedy “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”. The remaining songs however are, well ... not very good. The segues between narrative and songs are poorly handled as most of these musical numbers just happen without reason or proper buildup. For example, there’s a scene when the grandfather gets kidnapped, and as he’s being up-ducted he randomly breaks into this song titled “Posh!” which revolves around his love for traveling and has nothing to do with the situation. It sounds terrible, the staging is awkward and it just waists time. Actually, the majority of these songs add nothing to the story or characters, there just there for the sake of having songs in a family musical. The song “Toot Sweets” comes off very randomly, as it’s a number dedicated entirely to “a candy”, and has nothing to do with anything else in the film, but at least the setting of the candy factory is great, and both the staging and dance choreography is good.

      Some of these numbers can get away with little things like that, including the song “Me Ol’ Bamboo”, which is at least a nice dance number, and features some breathless dance choreography. Unfortunately for Dick Van Dyke, he’s not a very good singer, and this is a problem as many of these songs depend on his singing qualities, which just aren’t that good. 

The song “Truly Scrumptious” had the potential to be a decent bonding song between the kids and our female lead, and even has a nice melody to boot, but the whole thing comes off as cheesy, and the kids obviously aren’t very good singers. Actress Sally Ann Howes at least has a very good singing voice with great range, and it helps save some otherwise boring song numbers. This includes her stand alone love song titled “Lonely Lonely Man”, which is very generic and dull, but the setting is at least pretty to look at. The worst song by far is titled “Chu-Chi Face”, which is sung by our stupid main villain who’s trying to comically kill his wife, which is nothing short of annoying. Even the exciting climax gets derailed by a long and boring song number titled “Doll on a Music Box”, which goes on for way to long, and features Dick Van Dyke doing a bad dance imitation of the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz”. All the other songs aren’t even worth mentioning, as their forgettable, they meander and just don’t stick with me. It’s a shame because these songs were done by the Sherman Brothers, who usually hit it out of the park, and are best known for their musical work from classic Disney movies like “Mary Poppins”. I think they put all their focus on the theme song, and were running on fumes for the other musical numbers, but that’s just me.     

      In the end, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” may not have aged as well as other classic children’s movies, and may annoy more than entertain, but it’s not without some charm and likability. It’s undeniably imaginative, and even though the plot’s a scattered mess, it offers a wide variety different experiences in one film, all with the same magical overtone, and it’s consistently pleasing to look at. While most of the characters are average, the cast do them justice, and besides, who doesn’t enjoy Dick Van Dyke in his prime. Not every family film needs to go down in history like “The Wizard of Oz”. Sometimes a film just needs to be charming and memorable in a small way, and that’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in a nut shell. It’s good for the young at heart, and a mostly nostalgic treat for those of us that grew up with it. However, I really don’t know if kids today would have the same interest in this kind of film. Family movies have changed radically, and a musical of this sort may come off as boring, or just plain silly to the kids of this generation. Personally, I still like it, the cast is good, the technical inventiveness is very fun, and the music can be charming, at least the theme song is still very charming.

                                     I give “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” 3 stars out of 5.          

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