Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of the rare cases in my life where I think the movie is better than the book. To be fair, I read the book after spending a childhood loving the film, so I might be a little biased. I don’t think it is a bad book, but the film really ruined it for me. When I think of a perfect film, it has romance, humor, and adventure (and maybe a musical number or two). To me, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of those films.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was released on December 18, 1968, and is based on the children’s novel of the same name by Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond series. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the story of a motor car that had won the Grand Prix three years in a row before being wrecked in an effort to avoid hitting a young girl who wandered into the racetrack.
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Chitty was sold to a junkyard after her wreck. While she’s there, Jeremy and Jemima Potts find her and decide that she is their car. When someone tries to buy Chitty to have her melted down into scrap metal, the kids make an agreement with the junkyard owner to save her, with their father’s help.
As the children run home to tell their father about their car, they run into the path of wealthy Truly Scrumptious, played by Sally Ann Howes. Truly takes them home and proceeds to begin a slightly antagonistic relationship with their father that blooms into more over the course of the film.
The two children live with their father, Caractacus Potts, an eccentric widower inventor played by Dick Van Dyke, and their even more eccentric grandfather, played by Lionel Jeffries. Throughout the film, Mr. Potts is determined to invent something that actually works so he can provide for his children and prove that he can invent something useful. His inventions play a major role in the film, particularly the Toot Sweets, the hair-cutting machine, and Chitty herself after Mr. Potts repairs her with some modifications.
As the story progresses, Mr. Potts and Truly begin to bond, while the children indulge in a bit of matchmaking. In the midst of this plot, the Baron Bomburst from Vulgaria arrives in England to either steal Chitty the marvelous motorcar or kidnap her inventor. Through a comedy of errors, his inept spies kidnap Grandpa, thinking he is the inventor. Mr. Potts, Truly, and the children take Chitty to go save him and discover that she can float and fly.
When the rescue party arrives in Vulgaria, however, they discover that there are some unforeseen complications. The Baroness hates children and has outlawed them, hiring a Childcatcher to round up any children in the country. Additionally, the locals are terrified of their rulers, the Baron is really an overgrown child with his own military, and Grandpa is locked up tight.
As with many stories, things go badly before they can even plan or solve the first problem. Jeremy and Jemima are captured by the Childcatcher, Chitty is discovered by the soldiers, and things seem hopeless. It falls to Mr. Potts and Truly to unite the people of Vulgaria against tyranny and save their family, with plenty of musical numbers along the way.
The film manages to find the perfect balance of frightening and humorous. There are some terrifying things, like the Childcatcher, but those moments are balanced with lighthearted fun and a ton of jokes. And in the end, the magic portion was only a story, because everyone knows that cars don’t fly. Or do they?
The supporting characters are wonderfully performed, especially the Baron and Baroness. Their characters are so over the top that it looks like they had a lot of fun in their roles. For me, however, the two characters that always stand out the most are the two leads.
Dick Van Dyke not only can sing and dance, but he also makes the character of Mr. Potts seem less flighty and scatterbrained. Don’t get me wrong, he is a terribly flighty character, but Van Dyke is able to balance that portion of the character with a concerned and loving father. This makes Mr. Potts a character that we want to root for.
Additionally, the chemistry between the two leads is very believable. Sally Ann Howes and Dick Van Dyke play off of each other in a fun and believable way, as they go from hating each other, to realizing that their first impressions might be wrong, to eventually falling in love, helped along the way by a pair of adorable scamps.
Howe is an accomplished actress herself, and the one thing in the film that bothers me, her ballad, does make sense if I just remember that they wanted to give an incredibly talented performer another song to sing. Howe manages to play Truly in a way that is sympathetic and not an overly spoiled rich socialite. She’s the kind of character that has good intentions, acts on them, and can learn from her mistakes.
Finally, the Childcatcher, played by Robert Helpmann, is terrifying in his menacing behavior. He makes a better case for “stranger danger” than the best Public Service Announcements. Seriously, many a childhood nightmare was fueled by that character, especially when he disguises himself as a candy man to catch Jeremy and Jemima.
Not only are the actors amazing, but the other aspects of the film are full of talent as well. The screenplay was written by Roald Dahl. Dahl was the genius behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and many more novels that have entertained, and in some ways terrified, kids for generations.
The music was written by the Sherman brothers, who wrote music for several beloved Disney films, including Mary Poppins. According to a 2003 British poll “Top 10 Favorite Children’s Films of All Time,” Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was number 1, something that the music likely played a major role in. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award (Best Music, Original Song- “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”) and a Golden Globe (Best Original Score) in 1969.
If you haven’t seen this movie, it is well worth the watch. Not only is the music itself marvelous, it features some amazing dancing. “Me Old Bamboo” and “Toot Sweets” come first to my mind as the most fun dance numbers, but they’re all great. The footwork is fast, the music toe-tapping, and the songs will be stuck in your head all day.
In addition to the amazing talent both on screen and behind the scenes, the story is just really fun. I really only gave you the basics, but there is so much more to enjoy. Plus, it’s a musical about a magical car and her eccentric owners, the deep love that is between all of them, and the often strange people that they all meet. Like so many wonderful things, it sounds so silly when you say it, but put it all together and it is truly a magical film that aged well.
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