Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, from my personal collection.

A few weeks ago I actually had to hang out with children, a thing that happens very rarely. They're pretty cool and mostly I had some fun revisiting some kids movies that I still love, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which we never finished. I kept getting the songs caught in my head since then so I sat down for a viewing by myself last weekend. Based on a short story by Ian Fleming, with a script by Roald Dahl, and featuring one of the coolest cars ever, the film has continued to enchant me since my first viewing, lo those many years ago.

Dick Van Dyke stars as amazingly-named Caractacus Potts, an absent-minded inventor and single father to two super-British children. He creates a type of candy flute that catches the attention of Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes), the daughter of candymaker extraordinaire Lord Scrumptious (James Robertson Justice), and she joins the Potts family on a picnic in their new souped-up car (named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the sounds its engine makes). While hanging out at the beach they're lurched into a fantastic adventure that involves a mad Baron and a city where children are banned and a flying car and singing scientists and Benny Hill.

Between the lovely period costumes (it takes place in the 1910's), kickass musical numbers, action-packed plot, and great cast, there's so much to like about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang even though its name is silly. The visuals are very cool, with decent effects for the flying car shenanigans and a lot of fanciful costuming and sets. It's also legitimately funny, with a farcical edge and memorably outlandish characters. There are so many little things I love, from the machine that makes automated breakfast and the human toy show to the candy factory tasting and the bumbling "Vulgarian" spies trying to fit in with the English.

I guess I love Dick Van Dyke (it took me a while to realize it), and he's excellent as Professor Potts: scatterbrained, kind of crazy, good at monologues, and totally rockin' a cardigan. He's also got some great musical sequences that show off his energetic style and comedic timing. Sally Ann Howes is a little boring as Truly, but she's pretty and it's funny that she re-enforces so many stereotypes about ladies (they can't drive, they have innate mothering tendencies, their solo songs are the most boring in any musical, etc). The children are high-pitched and annoying as hell but I find that basically hilarious. Benny Hill is there and has a funny accent, there's a funny/terrifying couple who frequently try to kill each other (out of love?), and a hideous child-catcher who can smell children. Best of all is Lionel Jeffries as Grandpa Potts, the most adorable and entertaining character in the entire film, and that's saying something. I mean, just look at him.

I know for some reason this movie is derided a lot today, but I honestly have no idea why. I've never read Ian Fleming's story, but I don't think it's become some kind of literary classic that viewers are offended to see adapted incorrectly or something. In many ways I think this is exactly the kind of movie kids should be watching, and to my delight it really does hold up well into adulthood. It's the kind of film that just sparks the imagination, filled with so much adventure and strangeness and fun- plus many a catchy tune- that it yearns for numerous repeat viewings. It's the kind of film that can inspire fantastical backyard games and miniature sagas for Barbie dolls and sudden interest in turn-of-the-century fashion and jotting down an original fairy tale and so many other bouts of creation. And that's important, at least to me.


Pair This Movie With: I think a Roald Dahl adaptation would work well, like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Mathilda.

This is one of my favorite scenes in the film, and I've had the song caught in my head since watching it.