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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (December 6/03)

The thing about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is that it's two distinctly different movies. The first is a tremendously entertaining musical with catchy songs and memorable performances. The second, however, is a bloated and overlong fantasy with too many over-the-top elements that just don't work. Given that the film runs almost two-and-a-half hours, it's fairly clear that a substantial amount of trimming would have been appropriate.

Based on the book by Ian Fleming (yep, the same Ian Fleming responsible for the James Bond series), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang stars Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts - a quirky inventor who spends his days building odd contraptions that generally elicit little interest from anyone other than his two kids. After he meets a woman named Truly Scrumptious (this is a Fleming story, after all), Caractacus takes her and his kids out to the beach for a picnic in his newly refurbished car, aptly named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. While there, he offers up a story involving a dreadful city called Vulgaria where kids aren't allowed - and it's around this point that the film begins to wear out its welcome.

The first hour or so of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a lot of fun, with Ken Adam's amazing production design an obvious highlight. Having worked on the majority of the Bond flicks, Adam's no stranger to opulence; there are many sets in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that rival anything found within a Bond movie in terms of sheer spectacle. The interior of the Vulgarian castle, for example, is a gorgeous piece of eye candy that resembles something out of a animated children's book. Likewise, the various other visual elements - including the design of the car and lush costumes - ensure that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is almost always interesting, on a purely visceral level. It's one of the most colorful and vibrant children's films ever made, there's no denying that.

Of course, some mention must be made of Van Dyke's performance, which is incredibly enjoyable. The actor proves to be a very charismatic presence, and does a nice job of turning a character that could've been weird and creepy into an undeniably compelling figure. And as he'd already proved in Mary Poppins, Van Dyke has a seemingly natural ability to morph into a song-and-dance man at the drop of a hat. It doesn't hurt that the film re-teamed him with the Sherman brothers, the two men responsible for the songs in Mary Poppins. There are a number of tunes here (including the titular ditty) that are just as memorable as anything in that film, and they've been executed with an expected amount of panache.

But when the movie stops being about Caractacus and his adventures - and instead becomes a visualization of his story to the children - that's the moment that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang turns into an overblown mess. Wackiness and silly behavior takes over, and while small children probably will find that to be a good thing, it becomes fairly tedious almost immediately. All the stuff involving Vulgaria, from the ruthless dictator to the evil "childcatcher" (who, admittedly, scared the hell out of me as a kid), just isn't all that interesting. And though Van Dyke's effortless charm goes a long way, it's not enough to prevent doldrums from setting in.

Perhaps that portion of the film would've worked better if it hadn't been a dream sequence, because it would have seemed as though this stuff was actually happening to our heroes. As it is, it's almost impossible to care what happens since we know it's not real. Regardless, the first hour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is enjoyable enough to warrant a mild recommendation.

out of

About the DVD: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is now available in two new Family DVD 3-Packs from MGM (one also contains The Black Stallion and Yours, Mine and Ours, while the other includes It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and Prancer). Be warned, though - the version included in these two sets is the full-frame edition. As for the special edition, the movie's been remastered and has been given a gorgeous new widescreen transfer. But this is a full-fledged special edition, and the extras are plentiful. The most notable extra feature is a fairly lengthy interview with Dick Van Dyke that's just fascinating. He's just as affable in person as he was in the film, and he provides a lot of interesting anecdotes regarding the production. Also included are three "vintage featurettes," one of which contains Van Dyke talking to the press about the film (the other two, "The Ditchling Tinkerer" and "The Pott's Children" are cute, albeit in a '60s way). There's also an interview with the man who bought the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car, who's way too into the whole thing. Another great extra is a set of 14 demos by the Sherman brothers, presented as audio only. We get to hear their renditions of 14 of the songs found in the film, which is certainly quite a unique feature. Finally, there is a vintage advertising gallery and a few games for the kiddies. All in all, a great package.
© David Nusair