At the time of its release, Time Magazine wisely declared the film to be a movie for all ages - then cloyingly added, "the ages between five and twelve". Today, it's difficult to imagine any twelve year old sitting through the misery of the Sherman Brothers lugubrious score. Save the somewhat hummable title track and the melodious 'Hushabye Mountain' the film is a cavalcade of mediocrity blown out of proportion by Production Designer Ken Adams' elephantine sets.
The year is 1910 and Jeremy (Adrian Hall) and Jemima Potts (Heather Ripley) are two children enthralled with a derelict wreck at a gas station not far from their home. Their eccentric father, Caractacus (Dick Van Dyke) is a slightly scatterbrained inventor of multiple failed experiments, including an oversized precursor to the modern day vacuum cleaner. One day, while skipping school, Jeremy and Jemima are almost run over in the street by Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes); the daughter of a wealthy candy manufacturer. Truly attempts to preach some sense into Caractacus' head about the welfare and education of his children. But Caractacus is boorish and rude and quickly admonishes Truly for her concern.
Truly convinces Caractacus that one of his candied inventions, a sugar flute, might be the next great invention in confections that Caractacus could sell to her father for the necessary funds to sustain his family. Caractacus makes post haste for the Truly Scrumptious Candy Factory. His intrusion, regrettably, is hardly welcome by Lord Scrumptious (James Robertson Justice) and, after the lavishly appointed dance procession; 'Toots Sweet' (a miserable first attempt to recreate the lavish merriment of Mary Poppins) Caractacus is jettisoned from the factory in disgrace.
Episodic at best, the screenplay patched together by Roald Dahl, Ken Hughes and Richard Maibaum has Caractacus' take his hair cutting invention to a local fair where it malfunctions on a patron. However, by joining the fair's buskers (in yet another song and dance that steals much from the 'Step in Time' sequence from Mary Poppins), Caracatus earns enough money to by the derelict auto that Jeremy and Jemima have fallen in love with.
Retooling the car with all the creatively absurd accoutrements that presumably any child would be crazy about, Caracatus debuts 'Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang' to his children who are ecstatic. After narrowly running Truly off the road, Caracatus encourages her to join them on their journey to the seaside for a picnic. At the beach, Caractacus tells his children the story of evil Baron Bomburst (Gert Frobe) a tyrannical ruler from the fictionalized province of Vulgaria.
In the Ian Fleming novel, this episode is an extension of the narrative. In the film, it closes the third act as an extended dream sequence. In both instances, Bombast kidnaps Grandpa Potts (Lionel Jeffries) and takes him to his towering castle in the forest (actually the Nieuwenstein Castle in Germany) in a vain attempt to force him to build another Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang.
The real Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang first develops flotation devices, then wings to make the rescue journey to Vulgaria where Caracatus and Truly learn that Baroness Bomburst (Anna Quayle) has imprisoned all the town's children in a dungeon below the castle. A local toymaker makes Truly and Caractacus up as a marionette and wind-up doll - both presents for the Baron's birthday celebration. The two distract the Baron and the Queen long enough for the children to escape and Grandpa to be freed.
This dream sequence dissolves back to present day reality where Jeremy and Jemima encourage Caracatus to propose to Truly. Believing that their class distinction is too great, Caracatus has a change of heart after Lord Scrumptious resolves to purchase the Toot Sweet - thereby instantly elevating Caracatus to a social status he believes is worthy of Truly. As Caracatus and Truly drive off together in Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, the car once more takes flight, this time seemingly on the imaginary wings of love.
Despite its many misfires, it's difficult to dismiss the film all together as misguided, sentimentalized tripe. Christopher Challis' cinematography, as example, is breathtaking - utilizing a deep focus that captures all of the many meticulous details incorporated in Ken Adams' production design.
The choreography by Dee Dee Wood and Marc Breaux is trying too hard to recapture the magic of their efforts on Mary Poppins, yet effectively generates what little spark of excitement the film has. The luck and the tragedy of it all is that everyone from cast and crew seem to be working overtime and at the peak of their powers to transform this modest tale into a memorable cinematic experience: an achievement that sadly never reaches that foregone conclusion. In the final analysis, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang is a clunker relegated to the scrap heap with gusto.
Fox/MGM's Blu-Ray is a blessing of sorts. The original Super Panavision 70 film stock has been lovingly preserved in all its startling clarity and razor sharpness. The image is well defined with robust colours and a gorgeous amount of fine detail that truly recreates the cinematic experience. Process and effects shots fair slightly less well under closer scrutiny but these are few and far between. Otherwise, there's really nothing to complain about the video. The audio has been given a 7.1 upgrade. While music definitely benefits, dialogue sounds even more manufactured and hollow.
Extras are all imported from MGM's lavish anniversary edition DVD and include several featurettes, including a 26 min. remeniscence from Dick Van Dyke on the making of the film. Shorts on the film's score, special effects and the film's theatrical trailer have also been included.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)