Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Released: 1968
Rated: G
Length: 144 min. (with an intermission at the 1:27 mark)
Age: 6 and up            Commensense Media sez: 6 +

Scary Factor: fantasy adventure story abounds in peril but all is exaggerated and cartoonish; the Baron and his spies are too bumbling to be truly scary; the Child Catcher on the other hand is extremely creepy, he’s the scariest thing in the movie, especially when he captures Jemima and Jeremy

Intense Scenes: all the children living underground is a rather pathetic sight, it stuck with me as a child; Caractacus and Truly posing as dolls is a bit suspenseful, but mostly amusing

Questionable Language: apparently Grandpa says “ass” at some point

Other Violence and Mayhem: the Baron and Baroness are pretty weird, especially the Baron’s sly attempts to do away with his wife, particularly during their cutesy song together before the party; in an earlier scene the Baroness is ejected high into the air, she floats gently down thanks to her large skirts and the Baron hauls out his shotgun and shoots at her! (the resulting holes in her billowing skirt bring her down quickly, and he expresses disappointment that he only hit her skirt!)

Interests: cars, inventions, magic, action, adventure, castles, scientists, inventors, spies, musicals

Next: Ian Fleming book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (very different plot)

Eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts lives with his dotty old father and two children (Jeremy and Jemima) inside an old windmill. His inventions never quite work as they should, and the family is very poor, although perfectly happy together. Urged on by his children, Caractacus refurbishes an old wreck of a racing car and christens it Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They drive off for a picnic at the seaside with a new acquaintance, the local candy tycoon’s daughter, aptly named Truly Scrumptious.

At the seashore Caractacus is asked for a story and he tells one about the Baron of Vulgaria trying to steal Chitty, which is magically able to float on the waves and fly through the air. The Baron’s spies kidnap Grandpa, and the family follows them to Vulgaria, where an evil Child-Catcher captures Jemima and Jeremy. Caractacus and Truly gain access to the castle by posing as windup dolls. The village children, hidden beneath the castle, swarm the place, overcoming the pompous Baron and Baroness and their court in a bloodless coup. The family is reunited and fly back home in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Back on the beach everyone approves of the story and it’s time to head home. Caractacus seems about to propose to Truly, but he thinks better of it, citing their different social classes, which enrages Truly. Back home Truly’s father is waiting with a big fat cheque for Caractacus’ whistling candy concoction. Caractacus promptly proposes to Truly.

This movie is made up of two stories, the ‘true life’ one and the fantasy tale told at the beach. The former is benign and rather delightful, a warm portrait of an odd but very loving family. At first Dick van Dyke’s Caractacus seems neglectful and scatter-brained, but he is soon revealed to be a perfect parental model. He may not be the best provider, but he more than makes up for their scant material wealth with caring, tenderness, humour and play. And he’ll bend over backwards to give the children their heart’s desire – even if it’s a worthless pile of scrap metal that used to be a car.

While there’s nothing too scary or upsetting in the bookending true story, the fantasy tale holds some real gothic frights – castles, dungeons, insane rulers, marching soldiers, villagers skittering about in fear, and the sinister Child Catcher with his cage-cart. The Child Catcher (along with those darned Wizard of Oz flying monkeys) may be the most famously scary character in children’s films. (As played by Robert Helpmann, the famous Australian ballet dancer/actor/choreographer who appeared in The Red Shoes (1948) with Moira Shearer… for those of you who love movie trivia.)

The bad guys are all pretty silly, full-blown Germanic stereotypes with silly accents. At the castle Grandpa is entertained with oblique descriptions of torture (the thumbscrew and rack), and an executioner stands menacingly in the corner. The threat of violence is always hanging over their heads, as is common in overwrought tales of this type – the clearly crazy Baron shouts incessantly for people to be shot, although nobody perishes that we can see. (Even the spies who are callously tossed out of the zeppelin are eventually seen emerging from the ocean.) The Child Catcher hisses at the Toymaker that “if there are children here my friend, you will die!”, also stating that he’ll use his teeth for a necklace and his eyeballs for earrings. My daughter found his search of the toyshop really stressful, and Jeremy and Jemima’s capture is pretty upsetting as well.

One way through the scary stuff is to remind your child that this part is really just a story that Caractacus is making up… though my daughter then announced “even though this is made up, I still don’t like it!” (She also shouted at the kids “Don’t go! Don’t go!” when they were lured into the cage.) If you really think the Child Catcher will be too much for your child, you might consider just showing the first part of the movie, turning it off as they drive off for their picnic. It actually works as a mini-film this way, ending on a high note as they drive off in their new car. (Although you miss out on the flying this way.)

The real strengths of this film lie in the Big Reveals: the gleaming car as it’s finally rolled out of the workshop, the surprise as Chitty turns into a boat, the total shock as the car sprouts wings to save them from plummeting into the ocean. And the pride and joy of the family as they drive down country lanes in their shiny new car. (And that damn song that always gets stuck in my head. There it is again.) Other highlights: a real zeppelin, and aerial shots of a real castle – Neuschwanstein Castle, the castle of the famous “Mad King of Bavaria” that was also the model for the Disney castle. (For a nice beach I see they actually went to St. Tropez to shoot. Nice budget!)

For anyone particularly crazy about cars, the opening credit sequence is also a gem. Showing Chitty’s glorious history, it re-enacts several European Grand Prix of the era (1908-1909), which should be fascinating to both history buffs and sportscar enthusiasts. As well, Potts’ various inventions may interest anyone who loves science and machinery. He provides a nice model of the creative, visionary scientist at work, persisting despite numerous failures. In fact there’s a whole song about learning from your mistakes and trying again. (“From the ashes of failure come the roses of success!”)

The book: The book of the same name, by Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, has an entirely different plot. It’s a little more mundane, starring a pretty bland family (mother is included here), but it’s a fast-moving adventure with the main highlights: mysterious magical car that floats and flies, eccentric inventor father. What’s different: family has a run-in with gangsters, complete with a hidden cave full of explosives. The screenplay for the movie was written by Roald Dahl, and although it was rewritten by others, the story retains much of the flavour of his books. (Especially Vulgaria and the Child Catcher.) The movie was also later turned into a stage musical with the same Sherman Brothers songs.

Last bit of trivia: Julie Andrews was offered the lead in this, as a kind of Mary Poppins reunion with Dick van Dyke, but she turned down the offer as the role seemed a little too close to the Poppins character.

In conclusion: A great epic movie for those who love automobiles and musicals. Fantasy tale in the middle of the film does have some dark suspense and chills, but it is presented as a made-up story. The bookending ‘true to life’ story is a harmless, warm family tale.

(This DVD on amazon.)

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michael
    May 30, 2014 @ 17:33:41

    In regards to the questionable language, granpa says “Coggins? ‘e wouldn’t light your pipe if ‘is ‘ouse were on fire!” I can understand why modern a modern audience would not be familiar the dropped h. If anything, granpa would have said ‘arse’. In which case, the r would have been more pronounced. This is of course debatable, but, I choose to believe the best about the film, especially given the remarkable cleanliness of the rest of the dialogue.

    Reply

    • Kim
      May 30, 2014 @ 17:47:52

      Aha! Thanks Michael, I didn’t hear it anywhere, was wondering where it could be. And I agree, the language is squeaky clean otherwise, so one stray ‘arse’ would be pretty unlikely.

      Reply

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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