His name was Fleming, Ian Fleming, and he would go on to create the most famous spy in literary history. James Bond would actually be based on Fleming’s own experience in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But Fleming had another side. It’s hard to believe that the man who gave us such ubervillians as Dr. No and Goldfinger brought us one of the most enchanting children’s stories of our time. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘s bond association doesn’t end with its celebrated author. Albert “Cubby” Broccoli might have been just as instrumental for the success of Bond as Fleming himself. It was Broccoli who saw the potential and snapped up the rights to the spy series. He turned it into the famous Bond film series that still carries on the same traditions today, only at the hands of his daughter Barbara Broccoli. So it is only fitting somehow that Cubby would be the one to bring Fleming’s children’s story to life in movies, as well. The Bond associations don’t end there. Director Ken Hughes brought us Casino Royale. The comic villain of the movie would be almost unrecognizably played by Gert Frobe, none other than Auric Goldfinger himself.
MGM has long been known for its epic musicals. The studio had a reputation for sparing no expense while delivering some of the most sweeping musical films known to mankind. Complete with complicated dance numbers and casts of thousands, the MGM grand-style musical was once something to behold. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang wasn’t really the model for these impressive spectacles at all. In fact, this movie follows more closely the Walt Disney model that it is one of the most misidentified films in the popular conscience. In a survey taken in the 1980’s, only 1 out of 4 respondents correctly identified the film as an MGM production. The rest were confident that Uncle Walt and his Mouse House had given us the popular children’s musical.
Who could blame them, really? Dick Van Dyke had come off an iconic performance in Disney’s Mary Poppins. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang shared far more in common with that film than with anything that MGM was putting out. The catchy songs were written by Richard and Robert Sherman. The Sherman Brothers had spent the better part of their careers penning standards for Disney. Their credits included the aforementioned Mary Poppins. The film featured many of the over-the-top characters that were also a staple of the Disney children’s musical. It’s no wonder that, to this day, the film is thought to be a Disney production.
Caractacus Potts (Van Dyke) is a crazy inventor in the Doc Brown model. He is a widower with two very young children, Jemima (Ripley) and Jeremy (Hall). They live in a modest cottage on an English hillside with Grandpa (Jeffries). Grandpa is just as eccentric. He’s a former RAF man who fantasizes that he’s off on some grand adventure to India or Africa. The children fall in love with a hulk of a sports car that is headed to the trash heap. They implore their father to save the car from being crushed and plunged into a hot furnace. The family is poor, but Caractacus manages to raise the money for the hulk. He proceeds to spend every waking hour rebuilding the car with all sorts of materials he has lying about the place including a rowboat and a fireplace guard.
The children also run into Truly Scrumptious (Howes) on their way home from the junkyard. She is concerned that the children are not in school and begins to meddle, worried that the children might be neglected. She’s heiress to a candy fortune and does her best to help the Potts family. When the car is finished, they all go for a picnic at the seashore. There Caractacus entertains the three with a story about pirates, despot kings, and a plot to steal the amazing car, named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang because of the noise the engine makes. The family manages to defeat the evil plans of the ruler of Vulgaria and his minions.
Most of the movie is a fantasy. I don’t mean just a fantasy film. There’s a story within the story. The first hour is taken up learning about these characters through a few song-and-dance numbers and some ridiculous circumstances. We don’t even meet Chitty in its rebuilt state until an hour into the film. From there the movie shifts to the story being told, and the car takes on magical qualities. It can both float on the ocean and fly through the air. No wonder it was the envy of Baron Bomburst (Frobe) and the denizens of Vulgaria. There had originally been plans to make this fanciful story a series of actual events within the movie. I’d say the final choice was the better one. By making this a fairy story told by Potts, the characters are able to be truly outrageous. And here’s where the magic of the movie has endeared itself to children for over 40 years.
The characters work because they were cast to include some absolutely wonderful performers. I already mentioned Gert Frobe as Baron Bomburst. I had to take a third and fourth look to recognize the character. Other notable performances outside of Dick Van Dyke himself include the lovely Sally Ann Howes as Truly Scrumptious. If you wanted any evidence of Fleming’s hand in the story, you need look no further than this name. It’s typical Fleming. She exhibits a wonderful singing voice and an innocence that keeps the film grounded no matter how fanciful it becomes. Unfortunately, her career never really took off after Chitty, and she has just a few credits to her name. Lionel Jeffries is wonderful as the eccentric Grandpa who goes off on imaginary adventures and gets caught up through a case of mistaken identity in this fantasy. He’s mistaken for his son and kidnapped by the Baron to build him a flying car. The wonderful character actor passed just this year. Benny Hill does a marvelous turn as a toymaker in Vulgaria where children are prohibited. He’s quite understated here when you compare his performance to his normally rowdy antics. Dancer Robert Helpmann steals the show as Vulgaria’s child-catcher. His movements draw heavily upon his ballet background. It’s a creepy yet entertaining role, to be sure. Bernard Spear and Alexander Dore star as Vulgaria’s spies in England. They play a game of trying to stop Potts that is very much like the Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. The antics include backfiring explosives and painting a fake road on a sheet over a trap.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of almost 25 mbps. You have to remember that this film is over 40 years old. But it’s apparent that a great deal of care went into preserving the film and creating a solid high-definition image presentation here. The print looks remarkably clean. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of print damage or dirt. There is a slight shift in brightness from time to time that I did find annoying in places, particularly facial close-ups. There’s not a lot of texture in the detail. The colors do make up for the texture deficiencies. The car looks magnificent. The colorful costumes of Vulgaria do stand out. Black levels are pretty solid. There isn’t a ton of darkness here. This is an overall brightly-lit film. There are some moments of sheer spectacular images. When the family drives to the seashore, there are some wide shots that are quite nicely done.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is alive with the music and exotic sounds of the film. The surround usage is quite impressive without spoiling the mono original intention of the score. The Sherman Brothers deliver more classic songs and they come off quite nicely, indeed. Dialog is fine. The age does sneak through with an occasional hiss or moment of distortion. Let me tell you that you have to search extensively to catch them. And why on earth would you want to do that?
Remembering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang With Dick Van Dyke: (25:58) This is a nice interview with Van Dyke, who fondly points out his favorite moments and anecdotes from the film.
A Fantasmagorical Motor Car: (9:44) Pierre Pieton owns a prop car and gives you an entertaining look at the vehicle. He was brought into the movie because he owned the collapsing car seen in the film.
Sherman Brothers Demos: (30:20) This is audio only. Listen to the brothers demo songs from the film and describe their place in the movie. This is a treasure.
Dick Van Dyke Interview: (8:48) This interview was conducted three weeks into shooting on the movie. He fields questions about the movie, the state of television, and miniskirts.
The rest of the extras include photo galleries, sing-a-longs, games and activities.
DVD and Digital Copy
The film was the first movie I remember seeing as a child. It played a double bill with The Gnome Mobile, which was a Disney film. It’s a bit of a kick to relive those moments some 40 years later through this MGM high-definition Blu-ray release. It’s a long film clocking in at two and a half hours. I suspect it will tax the attention span of a modern child, and it does seem to go on at times. It’s worth the patience, however, for both young and old alike. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, our fine four-fendered friend.”