Rated G for good-natured fun. Sure, there's a story about a world where kids are considered illegal and live in a sewer system to avoid extermination. There's also a guy who traps kids in his ye-olde-timey candy van. There's also this amazing comment on privilege that comes out of left field. But over all, it's a pretty innocent time. It's a silly car story. You know, like The Love Bug but with way less casual racism.
DIRECTOR: Ken Hughes
I'll admit it! I hadn't seen this one before. I know. A lot of jaws dropped when I told people that this was my first experience with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It seems like this is something I should have watched a long time ago. I think that there's some kind of really faint memory that I saw this when I was crazy young. Regardless, there's a lot here for me to unpack. (Watch, this is going to be the shortest thing that I've ever written.) But considering that I'm such a James Bond fan, it's kind of insane the connections to the Bond movies that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang offers. I always knew that Ian Fleming wrote this movie, but I didn't realize that Albert Broccoli must have purchased the complete works of Ian Fleming. Besides Fleming's authorship of the original work, this was filmed at Pinewood. The bad guy is played by Gert Frobe, Goldfinger himself. Then there's the rare appearance of Desmond Llewelyn outside of his Q role. It's a bit of a nerd overload for me. Not that I mind.
But the thing that blows my mind, besides the fact that this musical is charming as get out, is the absolute bananas format that the movie takes. I dare you to diagram this on a plot mountain. It follows absolutely no rules of storytelling. I keep wondering what the central conflict of the story is. From the beginning, it seems like this is the story of an inventor who just needs to get one major success. Then I think it is about saving the car from the scrapyard. Then I think it is about selling this accidental success to a candy company. But then, a bunch of these plots are wrapped up. He saves the car. He fixes the car correctly, which means he's achieved his goal of being a good inventor. Then the story teases this romance. But the second it teases the romance...
...a whole new story begins.
Yeah, it's a really hard left turn. The movie, unsure of anything besides its sense of absurdity and wonderment, decides to become this whole separate movie. To make things clear, Dick Van Dyke's Caractacus Potts starts to tell the kids a story of this evil baron who wants to steal their new car, which they have dubbed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The story is large and bombastic. Now, it seems pretty clear that this is an imagined story, until you realize that the story doesn't really stop. We see that dissolve of a real boat turning into a warship and then the story keeps going. Like, I love the story. I really do. It's a great story full of weird, Alice in Wonderlandy things. But the thing is, it doesn't really tell you what's real and what isn't real. I had to bring up the Wikipedia article on the movie just to confirm that I wasn't going crazy. Because, and here's the real kicker, the world of Caractacus Potts, the in-world / real world Caractacus Potts, is pretty absurd. Like, a lot of weird stuff happens to him. He accidentally gets a candy factory overrun by dogs. He burns a man's hair off and becomes the star of a carnival performance revue. He has a rocketpack with skiis. His world is pretty weird to start with. So when he tells the story of a fantasy world with a baron that wants to steal his car, I'm not exactly sure what the rules are.
I mean, we all have that image of the car flying. I thought that this was going to be the story of an inventor who built a car that flies. That's what I signed up for. Instead, his kids are simply being entertained about the hypothetical versions of themselves where a car can fly. It's a real weird move because the movie, for as long as it is, never lets you get comfortable with one idea. Oh, and that's not the final plot. There's this whole story-within-a-story about a trip to Vulgaria where kids are kidnapped and there's a revolution that frees a bunch of kids. And then...the story ends. We go back to reality and the kids decide to throw another story into the works: Why doesn't Daddy marry Truly?
Now, it's not wholly unforeseeable that there's talk of marriage in a musical comedy. It's almost expected to be in a musical. But let's look at the situation that the film is even aware of...because it straight up addressed it. As insane as the story is, realize that a good chunk of the film is devoted to this made up story that Potts is telling. In real time, the story is really over the course of 24 hours. From Truly Scrumptious's perspective (Ian Fleming really had a thing about female names being suggestive), her day included getting run off the road by the same family three times in one day, running into the family the next day at her father's factory, and going on a car ride. That's it. And don't get me wrong. That car ride isn't the worst date in the world. It is a very impressive car that he built from the bottom up. There's a lot of laughing and good times. But within the 24 hours, Potts has insulted the female protagonist a whole bunch of times. They only bond because Potts has invented a candy that Truly finds whimsical and that's it. And it's the kids who want them to get married? They said, "We want a mom" and went with the first lady that they thought was pretty enough. Now, I get the vibe that Truly isn't some kind of psychopath who likes to murder children. But I'm also basing a lot of her character based on Potts's story, that is based absolutely on nothing. He doesn't know Truly from a hole in the ground. Yet, the movie ends with them getting married. Yeah, it's a family friendly musical. But golly, that was pretty darned quick.
I'm pretty sure that there's a stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I know. I have a theatre degree, which is why I spell "theater" with an "-re". Considering that the movie is shot at Pinewood and that everyone else in the movie is a British staple, I was ready for Dick Van Dyke to dust off the mothballs on ol' Bert from Poppins. I know that he gets teased for that remarkably over-the-top accent a lot. But considering that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins share the same tone, Van Dyke plays Potts as an American. That's cool. I think it is a fine choice, especially considering how Dick Van Dyke can hold his own without the accent. But it is really weird, the more I think about it. I don't think I've played "Figure Out the Lineage" harder than when I watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Caractacus Potts is a widower with two children. He lives with someone he calls his father in England. Okay. There's a version of the story where Grand Dad sent his daughter to America. She fell in love with a guy named Caractacus Potts and they got married and moved back to England with Caractacus's father-in-law. But then, Grand Dad's last name is Potts. All this is leading to no real reason why Dick Van Dyke isn't busting out ol' Bert's accent on this movie. I mean, there's a version of the story where Grand Dad lived in America for a while, raised Caractacus in America, and then they moved to England once Caractacus's wife died. But I really don't see that being a likely scenario.
I've been harboring a thought in the back of my brain as I've been blogging. Perhaps it's the fact that each of these movies has been loving VistaVision or the DP has a sense of panorama with the camera, but it feels like every long movie I've watched lately has been something I instantly consider epic. Yeah, epic narratives are longer journey stories. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feels epic, despite the fact that it technically takes place all within a small town by the sea. I think it's because of the scope of the imagination of the movie, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang technically isn't epic. It's just long. It doesn't feel particularly long and I do like it. But it is a rather small story. It's injected with a sense of scale artificially by Caractacus telling a story to his children. That story is fun, but it isn't epic. Perhaps part of it comes from the notion that everything is thrown into the formula with this movie. It really doesn't try to hold anything back, which makes for a disjointed but fun movie.
I get why people attach themselves to this movie. I don't think I've had so much fun with a musical for a while. I thought I had seen the good ones and the rest were simply going to be chuckles. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a classic for a reason. Yeah, I wouldn't recommend making many movies in the style of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but it worked this one time.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.