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“Near, far, in a motorcar
Oh what a happy time we’ll spend
Bang-Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Our fine four-fendered friend,
Bang-Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Our fine four-fendered friend!”
– Lyrics from the titular song
This movie is a ripoff.
It’s not uncommon for some films, particularly nowadays, to be made solely to cash in on recent trends or piggyback on the success of other films by recycling certain elements. You’d be surprised, however, to find that some of the most beloved movies of all time are no different. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937, no less than three fantasy films that came out around that time were inspired by or tried to copy from it – Fox’s Shirley Temple musical “The Blue Bird”, Fleischer Studios’ animated musical adaptation of “Gulliver’s Travels”, and yes, even The Wizard of Oz are all guilty of trying to be like Snow White. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is no exception to this. It was made and released during the 1960’s, a golden age for musicals both on stage and screen.
And what was one of the biggest musicals to come out at that era, beloved by both families and critics, winning Oscars for its charming lead and catchy songs and is considered a classic to this day?
So imagine you’re an executive or producer at United Artists, and you’re probably wondering, how can we capitalize off of this? Let’s start by basing it off a beloved children’s book-
– set it in 1900’s England –
– get the same lead actor –
– the same songwriters and composer –
– not the same lead actress because she was smart enough to notice how similar the parts are but get one nearly as good –
– add two cute children –
– an eccentric old adventurer –
– put something in the plot about having a complete family –
– and heck, let’s even throw in some of the same choreography –
And we have our movie.
All this may look like I’m hating on the film because it’s so similar to Mary Poppins, but honestly, nothing could be farther from the truth. I probably wouldn’t even be reviewing this movie if I didn’t like it. I genuinely enjoy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Its music and characters and adventures and overall innocent and childlike tone all take me back to being a kid again. I just wanted to address the elephant in the room first instead of going back and forth to it during the review.
Some of you may be surprised that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was based on a book, and there’s quite an interesting story to that. The author was none other than Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, and it was a gift from him to his son. You see, he was so caught up in writing the exploits of the world’s greatest fictional spy that he tended to overlook his family, and one day his young boy flat-out told him “You love James Bond more than me.” Fleming really took that to heart, and as a way of apologizing, wrote him a story that they could read together. I can’t really compare the book and the movie as I’ve never read it, but from what I’ve heard they’re completely different (not to mention the movie’s popularity has all but eclipsed the book, so I can’t think of anyone I know who has actually read it.)
And to bring the whole James Bond connection full circle, the film was produced by Albert Cubby Broccoli (who also produced the James Bond franchise), and the screenplay was penned by legendary children’s author and screenwriter of “You Only Live Twice”, Roald Dahl.
There’s a minute of the sounds of cars revving up and cheering crowds played over black to get us in the mood for racing…which is kind of a misdirection seeing how racing doesn’t come into play at all beyond the opening credits. Still, I love the music, which is an upbeat march version of the main theme song. The credits roll over a montage of old-timey automobile races sometime during the early 1900’s.
One shiny car from England seems to excel, winning race after race until one nasty crash takes it out of commission. Now the driver crashed because he was trying to avoid a child that wandered out on to the track, but what are the odds of something like this happening after such a winning streak? I suspect sabotage! And I think we all know who would have the most to gain from having a lead competitor eliminated from a great race…
The car winds up in a junkyard where two children, Jeremy and Jemimah, come to play with it often. One afternoon, however, the car is sold as scrap metal to a nameless character that I like to call Obligatory Minor Kid’s Movie Antagonist, or OMKMA for short. OMKMA relishes in telling the horrified children about how the car is going to be shredded to pieces and melted for no other reason than to be a jerk. They ask him to stop as it’s scaring the poor car, and the car itself seems to shake in fear. This raises a question that I’ll go into more detail about later.
Feeling sorry for the kids, the junk man tells Jeremy and Jemimah that if they can give him the same amount of money that OMKMA paid for the car before he comes to pick it up in three days, they can have it. The kids are convinced that their father will have the money and they run home to ask him. On the way they cross the path of a woman driving an automobile and she swerves into a pond so she doesn’t run them over.
The lady in question, Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howe), questions why the children aren’t in school and gives them a ride home. The children accept a ride from a stranger with absolutely no question…yeeeeaaahh, as cute as Jeremy and Jemimah are, they aren’t exactly the smartest kids you’ll find in any children’s film. During the ride they bond a little and Truly is charmed by the sweet little munchkins, but she insists on talking to their father about their truancy.
When they get home (which is a really nice converted windmill), they’re greeted by their father, Caracatus Potts (Dick Van Dyke not sporting an British accent even though he’s in Britain and everyone else has an accent. Can’t imagine why). Caracatus is an inventor who’s about to try his latest creation.
The Rocketeer prototype doesn’t go quite as planned, fizzling out before it can take Caracatus fully off the runway. When he turns around to shoo the family dog Edison, the rockets suddenly ignite again and send him hurtling around the yard. Jeremy and Jemimah find this hysterical while Truly is utterly horrified and I’m really with Truly on this one. This isn’t funny, this is a Jackass stunt with a death wish! If I’ve learned anything from Toy Story, it’s when you light a rocket, they eventually explode. This would be a very short and depressing movie if Jeremy and Jemimah watched their only parent be blown to bits right in front of them. (Okay, he states later that he took everything into consideration and made his suit flameproof, but still…)
Truly manages to douse the rockets but rather than thanking her for saving his life and not leaving his children to be orphans, Caracatus is pissed that she ruined his latest gizmo (there’s gratitude for you). He’s too miffed to listen to her explaining why she’s here and cuts her apologies short. She does get the children to confess that they’ve been skipping school and I love Caracatus’ response: “Well, it’ll give the other children a chance to catch up, won’t it?”
The children run off for their tea and Truly has a run in with the other member of the Potts family (and one of the best characters in the whole film), Grandpa Potts (Lionel Jeffries). Keeping in the tradition of having grandparents in childrens’ movies be wily old coots, Grandpa Potts fancies himself an explorer off on various adventures in his…special place.
Truly tries to talk with Caracatus again in his workshop, which is full of funny fantastical creations that predate things like the vacuum cleaner and movie projectors. Caracatus asserts that he loves his children but believes that they should be independent. One invention that catches Truly’s eye is a sweetmaking machine that has the unfortunate side effect of leaving holes in the candy. She suggests that the boiling point for the sugar is too high, a fact that she happens to be correct on, but Caracatus takes it that she thinks herself an expert on candymaking and child rearing, and suggests she takes her interfering elsewhere. Truly takes him up on that offer but he does help get her car going (though not without some more bantering between them).
I guess this is supposed to be like the kind of arguing they do in romantic comedies to set up that eventually these two will end up together, and they do set up both characters very well, but honestly…they could have done this scene a little better. I mean they do introduce that both of them are stubborn and set in their ways and Truly does find some charm in Caracatus’ inventions and family, but Caractus comes off as a little too headstrong to be likable.
Caracatus goes to the kitchen to make supper with the children and this is where we get the real star of this movie: the songs.
For those of you who don’t know, Richard and Robert Sherman were a songwriting power team for a greater part of the 60’s and 70’s. Discovered by Walt Disney, they were on his personal payroll for many years and wrote tunes that are still classic standards for the movies and theme parks. Their work has also expanded beyond Disney and this movie just one thing beyond the studio that they’ve turned to gold with their catchy tunes. So the next time you find yourself humming “Feed the Birds”, “Snoopy Come Home”, “I Wanna Be Like You”, or even “It’s a Small World”, thank the Sherman Brothers. You’ll be glad you did.
The first song in this movie “You Two” shows the love Caracatus has for his children and they for him, and the song is a sweet little affirmation of their unshakable bond. Plus, after the bickering between Truly and Caracatus, this scene is where Dick Van Dyke’s charm and talent finally shines through and it thankfully remains that way for the rest of the film. Also, if any of you find yourself adding James Woods to the lyrics subconsciously, it’s no coincidence. It’s no secret that this is one of the musicals that Family Guy has parodied the most and for good reason. The only way to get one song from this movie out of your head is to replace it with another song, and then to get rid of that one you have to replace it with another, and so on and so on until the movie is over and you find yourself humming all of them at random intervals for the next month.
Grandpa joins them for dinner and tells them about his “adventure” in India where he shot an elephant in his pajamas (“How he got in my pajamas I don’t know!”).
Jeremy and Jemimah tell Caracatus about their beloved car and ask if he can buy it for them. The price, however, is pretty steep, and none of Caracatus’ inventions have hit the jackpot yet. Grandpa isn’t encouraging either, bringing up his old army days and how hard he worked during the war instead of wasting time fantasizing and working on his useless contraptions. Caracatus goes through his inventions and concedes that Truly was right about the holes in his sweets. He throws one away, but Edison puts one in his mouth and his heavy breathing while he chews it makes the candy whistle like a flute.
Caracatus realizes this is what he’s been looking for and takes the candy to the local candy factory the next morning. Jeremy, Jemimah and Edison tag along with him.
Caracatus fails at getting a word in to the snooty secretary, but the secretary bows over backwards when Truly enters because it turns out she’s the daughter of Lord Scrumptious, the factory owner. She’s happy to see them again, but Caracatus is understandably embarrassed when he learns who she is and tries to leave. Truly is forgiving, however (because with a name like hers you have virtually no choice but to live up to Disney princess standards of kindness), and after trying out the candy she secures an appointment with her father for him.
Lord Scrumptious, on the other hand, has no time to listen to Caracatus’ pitch and rudely brushes him off after a few seconds. There’s a funny bit where Caracatus tries to test the whistle but a factory air horn goes off at the same time, making him act astonished that he produced that sound. Lord Scrumptious goes to the massive avante-garde kitchen to test the day’s latest batches of sweets.
Truly urges to Caracatus to stand up for himself and we get our next big number, “Toot Sweets”. Truly, the children, and even the entire factory get in on the act as Caracatus sells his revolutionary confection, starting with the classic line “Don’t waste your pucker on some all day sucker!”
Hey, I didn’t put that in there! That’s a perfectly innocent line that can’t be twisted into something that could be as interpreted as…oh god I can’t get the image out of my head now!! Who’s responsible for this?!
What the –
…I’m not the only one who’s seeing that, right?
After hearing repeated chorus after chorus of the song, Lord Scrumptious gives the Toot Sweets a try and ends up liking them. They all pass them out to the workers for them to play with.
The ensuing song and dance is one of the film’s highlights, full of high energy and some great camerawork and choreography. Caracatus then conducts the whole factory like an orchestra as they play the tune on the Toot Sweets. Unfortunately, the whistling attracts every dog in the county and they invade the factory. Caracatus, Truly and the children flee with Edison in tow before Lord Scrumptious can send for the police, leaving the factory to the mercy of the hungry dogs.
That night, Caracatus checks up on his children before they go to bed with the intention of telling them he may not be able to get the car for them. Any adult with kids watching this can relate to it; Caracatus doesn’t want to shatter their hopes but at the same time has to be realistic about why he can’t give them everything he wishes he could. Jeremy and Jemimah aren’t let down, however. They offer their father a box of their “treasures” that he can sell. On top of all that, they tell him to not worry about the car and he can use the money he gets for his inventions.
This is why I’m a bit torn on my opinion on Jeremy and Jemimah. On one hand, they’re pretty one-dimensional, their repeated shouting can get grating, and as we’ll see later, they don’t understand simple orders to not get themselves tangled up in stranger danger –
– but on the other hand, they’re good kids who are imaginative, understanding and nice. This moment is genuinely heartwarming. You understand why Caracatus goes through such lengths to make them happy.
Caracatus gives them back the treasure chest with his thanks and his appreciation that they can see the world in ways no one else can. The more cynical side of me was going to write Caractus off as a bad parent but this is the moment made me reconsider. He may not always be watchful or mindful of the needs more responsible figures might put first, but he never discourages their ideas and still puts them first over everything.
He then sends them off to sleep with “Hushabye Mountain”, which is a beautiful lullaby that’s a masterpiece in and of itself. The music box and Dick Van Dyke’s dulcet tones make it hard for even a grown person to stay awake at three in the morning and finish thissszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..
Caracatus then wanders out to watch the sunset, which is framed in a way as he silently ponders his predicament that adds so much gravity as to what the future might hold without him even saying a word…
Hang on a second…
On seeing a traveling fair pass by, Caracatus decides to take one of his inventions there and see if he can make some money from it.
Now before I go any further, I’d like to mention how much I love the use of color in the set and costume design. Some of the more elaborate numbers stand out all the more because I can remember the colors associated with them. The yellows in Scrumptious’ office, the black and white in the factory, the varying shades of purple at the Baron’s birthday party, and at the fair –
– all orange and white. Even the people here have orange and white incorporated into their costumes. It’s touches like these that show how much effort they put into making something memorable that adds to my enjoyment of the film.
Also the music at the fair is a deleted song, “Come to the Fun Fair”, that was eventually incorporated into the stage version of the movie. I like how they use it here as a backdrop.
Caracatus parks his invention and tries to get noticed but keeps getting drowned out by the barkers surrounding him, so he’s forced to do the unthinkable – put on a Cockney accent again! THE HORROR!!!!
He draws the attention of a big lummox named Cyril and his girlfriend. Caracatus guarantees that his invention, a haircutting machine, will give him the haircut of his life.
Cyril chases Caracatus throughout the fair where he gets mistaken for a performer, put into a costume and is forced to hide out in the open in another musical number.
“Me Ol’ Bamboo” is one of the more difficult earworms to remove, and another of the film’s highlights. It also reminds me just how much of a great physical actor Dick Van Dyke is. He moves so effortlessly I have to remind myself that he and the other actors here must have spent hours in rehearsal to be so flawless. You could wonder why Caracatus is able to pull off a song and dance routine he stumbled into moments ago without any bit of training, but watch him through the first minute or so – he’s always just a step behind the other dancers and trying to catch up. And as for the song, well, you could make the slim argument that it’s a popular song that everyone in the movie already knows.
The routine is a smash and Caracatus is showered with enough coins to finally buy the car. He spends the next several days repairing her (and yes, they refer to the car as ‘she’ and ‘her’ throughout the movie so I refer to her as a female as well) while Jeremy and Jemima wait patiently with Grandpa. And the result…
Chitty is a masterpiece. I’m not the kind of person who looks at a Lamborghini or vintage Corvette and sees beauty, but when I see the titular vehicle, I see one hell of an amazing car. It looks like a car from that era, but modified just enough with elements of a boat, a plane, a train and even a bit of Rolls-Royce incorporated so it transcends the conventions of that time, making it timeless. I’m not sure if it makes iconic status like Back to the Future’s DeLorean or James Bond’s Aston Martin, but I know for a fact that it’s beloved enough that several of the versions used throughout the film have put into museums worldwide (and Peter Jackson himself owns one of the originals which he likes to tour around).
Caracatus takes Jeremy and Jemima out for a test drive and it’s during then that they christen the car Chitty Chitty Bang Bang after the sounds it makes. Everybody sing along!
The family is so busy singing that they nearly crash into Truly who swerves into the same pond from before. Caracatus comes to the rescue and the kids insist on her joining them for a picnic on the beach. They then sing another chorus of the song along with Truly (and no, you’ve already got the song trapped in your head for eternity so I won’t subject you to the second part).
They have a lovely time frolicking on the beach and the kids sing an ode to how fitting Truly’s name is for her. There’s so much whimsy in the past few minutes that a lesser person would crack, but not me. I LOVE my whimsy. And we’re not even halfway through the film yet! BRING IT ON!!
Ok, I’m sick of this. Who are you and why the hell are you messing with my review?
And what are you doing here?
That’s not true! I like this movie! Go back to the shadows from whence you came!
As Truly and Caracatus spend some time getting to know each other better, Jeremy and Jemimah watch from afar, and if you haven’t guessed by now, they find Truly Grade-A mommy material. Both eagerly wait for Caracatus to kiss her, because according to them “once he does, then they HAVE to get married!”
Yeah, but you gotta remember, these are two young kids we’re talking about. Hell, even I thought virtually the same thing when I was their age. I can’t begrudge them for that.
Later, the kids ask Caracatus to tell them a story and Jeremy spies a boat on the water that he thinks is a pirate ship. Caracatus turns this into his story, where a group of pirates led by the notorious Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria are out to steal their magnificent motorcar.
This transitions into…
…one of the biggest problems I have with this movie. I’m going to leave it for the very end because I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a huge problem that even fans of the film don’t like.
…Not gonna say anything, Cynicism?
How very erudite. Thank you, Cyn-
Uh, as I was saying, from here we transition (via cheap rainbow ripple) into the story that Caracatus is telling and get our main villain of the picture, Baron Bomburst (Gert Frobe).
If you haven’t surmised from the joke, yes, Bomburst is also the notorious Bond villain Goldfinger (another connection for those of you playing Six Degrees of Bond throughout this review).
In fact, remember how I mentioned before that Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay? His sense of humor and characterization shines the most in the villains of this movie. They’re over-the-top, extremely childish but somehow wield a ton of power, and are just so much fun to watch. Baron Bomburst and his cohorts (along with two more villains we see later in the film) fit right in with The Twits, The Trunchbull, The Grand High Witch, and all the other great villains Dahl has created (Now I really want to see a fan art of all of Roald Dahl’s villains paling around).
Caracatus informs them that they can’t escape because they haven’t noticed the tide come in and strand them far from land. It seems like the Baron will have his car and doom them all to drown, but something miraculous happens.
The Baron gives chase firing everything he’s got at them and I have to say it’s a rather exciting scene –
They escape the Baron and Chitty seamlessly changes from sea to land mode with the ease and grace of a Transformer while the Baron crashes his ship on shore. Not one to give up so easily, the Baron sends his two spies out to capture the car, threatening them with certain death if they fail. Luckily, they’ve got the credentials to back themselves up as the best in the business.
Just to give you an idea of the kind of shenanigans we’re in for with these two, here’s their idea of blending in.
On the ride home, Caracatus and Truly put their differences aside and apologize to each other. Caracatus admits that while he’s everything to his kids, he’s the one thing they really need, and drops Truly off. As she wanders the spacious grounds of her mansion, she grinds the movie to a halt to sing of her longing for her “Lovely, Lonely Man”. Sally Ann Howes is a good singer, but it’s probably the only song that isn’t catchy or even that…good. I would say that if the Sherman Brothers had one weakness it would be that they couldn’t write any great love songs, however I finally sat down and watched The Slipper and The Rose a short time ago and the ballads there are pretty nice. Mark it up as practice for that film, I suppose.
The spies try a few Wile E. Coyote-style plans to get the car but fail comically. As snarky as I may have sounded before, I like these spies and wish we could have seen more of their bungled schemes (Truly, Caracatus and the children being aware of them out to get them would have been humorous as well seeing as how they don’t seem to do much other than drive around the countryside for no other reason). I much rather would have had that happen instead of the previous song.
On one of their attempts they wind up accidentally capturing Lord Scrumptious and his valet. They steal their clothes and car and drive to the Potts’ home with a new plan – if they can’t steal the car, then steal the inventor who made it. Unfortunately they bump into Grandpa just as he’s about to go on another expedition and mistake him for the brilliant inventor .
Believing his hut to be his secret laboratory, they order the Baron’s blimp to come pick it up. Caracatus, Truly and the kids spy Grandpa waving from it while out on their drive and give chase. They’re so busy that they don’t notice they’re about to go over a cliff until it’s too late –
And after the obligatory 60’s roadshow intermission (I forget just how many movies did this back then, and not just the musicals), we start right where we left off with the car going off the cliff again. It’s not a bad, um, cliffhanger, but I think the stage adaptation improves on it. In the movie, just as the second act starts and it seems like they’re falling to their doom, Chitty reveals a new magic trick – a pair of brightly colored wings pan out from each side and it flies into the sky.
By all accounts a really cool moment, but if you’ve seen the poster you already know it’s going to happen and that the family is in no danger. In the stage version, the first act finale IS Chitty sprouting wings and flying to safety, and it’s a really great way to mark the halfway point of the show. Anytime I’ve seen it happen the audience breaks out into massive applause and for good reason. It’s just that awesome.
Also, as great a scene as it is, this is where I unfortunately have to draw comparisons with Mary Poppins again. The effects in that film still hold up very well, and are still easy to ignore when they don’t because you’re so invested in everything else going on. Here, they use a lot of green screen, and it’s pretty blatant when they do. You could chroma-key anything behind them while they’re swimming or flying and it would fit.
The family gets lost in the clouds while pursuing the blimp, but Grandpa is doing just fine. Maybe it’s the idea of being on a new adventure, or maybe it’s the fact that he’s going on a trip this momentous since he went to war, but now he’s excited to be flying out over the seas and lets it show while reminiscing on past exploits through another song, “Posh!” I don’t have much to say about it other than I’m going to be humming it in my sleep tonight. Moving on.
During the song, the Baron finds that the blimp is quickly losing altitude and he and his men start tossing things overboard as they begin to sink into the ocean. I’m impressed that after being kidnapped and dunked into unfamiliar waters Grandpa can keep up his spirits, but that’s why I love ‘im. When throwing out most of the equipment doesn’t work, the spies make the biggest mistake any villainous henchman can make while riding a hot-air vehicle and tell their boss there’s nothing left to get rid of.
The following morning the Baron and Grandpa arrive in Vulgaria to some small fanfare and the typical “walk this way” gag (man, that joke was old even before Mel Brooks made it popular). The Baron takes Grandpa on a tour of the castle where we see the courtiers and advisers doing what most children think old people do in retirement homes.
We also meet the Baron’s rather voluptuous wife who’s keen on indulging his manchildish tendencies by buying him large, expensive toys, like a life-size mechanical pony for him to ride through the castle halls on. Secretly, for whatever reason, the Baron hates his wife and as we’ll see later, he makes any attempt to bump her off and make it look like an accident. I’m not entirely sure why, maybe they just wanted to draw parallels to another famous wife-murdering tyrant, but look –
She openly accepts his childishness with love and care and she looks pretty good in spite of her crazier outfits (this is the most normal ensemble she wears in the whole movie), and he wants to kill her WHY?!
The Baron then takes Grandpa to the workshop where he will be working with his best scientists to replicate Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He even drops in his “laboratory” to help him out. He warns him, however, that if he fails to get the job done in twenty-four hours, there’s a pike on the wall reserved for him right next to Ned Stark.
So to do a quick recap, this movie is about a brilliant inventor who creates a fantastical car that is coveted by a powerful German supervillian and said supervillain tries to kidnap the inventor and coerce him with death threats in order to take that car.
That clenches it. This is a G-rated Bond film.
(And on a side note, if there’s any great editors out there who can create a fake trailer that makes this movie look like a serious action/spy thriller, I would be so happy right now.)
Grandpa tries to laugh off the Baron’s threat but the scientists assure him he means it. They’ve been held prisoner there for years and have endured his thumbscrews and racks whenever things didn’t go his way – the tallest among them says that he was a little person when arrived at the palace! This understandably depresses Grandpa, but leads right into one of the best songs, “The Roses of Success”. Despite all they’ve been put through, the scientists are very optimistic about doing the impossible and are more than willing to help Grandpa. It’s a wonderful message about persevering through failure and getting something back from each attempt at something new. Their enthusiasm gets through to Grandpa and he joins in, and not only that but I think he finally gains a little more perspective about the work his son does; he understands that it’s more than just putting random pieces together and hoping they do something, it’s a real challenge to create something. With the team assembled and the car in wait, Grandpa and his crew are ready to take on the world!
Luckily, Chitty and the Potts family finally reach Vulgaria –
– and the sight of the flying car quickly catches everyone’s attention.
In response, the Baron calls out his entire army to capture the car. And when the Baroness sees there are children in it, she sends for…
…THE CHILD CATCHER.
Chitty makes a safe landing under a bridge and secure that the car is hidden, everyone gets out to see where they are. They enter a somber town where nobody is willing to answer their questions and stare at them as they pass by. Caracatus realizes something is missing from here that would make this place more lively, more lived in, and Truly guesses what it is.
The townsfolk panic and flee indoors when they see the guards are on their way. A kindly toymaker (Benny Hill – yes, THAT Benny Hill) takes them into his toyshop and explains everything. No one in Vulgaria is allowed to have children because the Baroness is deathly afraid of them. If Jeremy and Jemima are found, they’ll be taken away and most likely executed along with their family. The Toymaker manages to get them and Caracatus and Truly down a trapdoor before…HE appears.
Enter THE CHILD CATCHER.
What can I say about this character that everyone before me hasn’t said already? I admit I first saw this movie when I was a little older than the intended age for it so I wasn’t too afraid of him, but I knew something was off about him (and not just because his job is to search for and kidnap children). It was only when I got older that I realized just how creepy he is. The pale skin, the long greasy hair, the spidery way he moves, and the sheer pleasure he gets out of scaring the children and even the adults. It’s easy to make a comparison between him and the creepy perverts you’d find online that try to pick up small kids, but something about him feels even more darker and twisted than that. We never hear him referred to by any other name, and there’s no redeeming or really any human qualities that he has.
In a way, he’s the other side of the Roald Dahl villain coin. On the one side, you have the Baron and Baroness, comic, buffoonish and silly. On the other side is The Child Catcher, nightmarish and terror-inducing, one of the epitomes of childhood fears. Even though he is a character always associated with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and is considered a great children’s literary villain, this was a character of Roald Dahl’s own creation. He was never in the book. And yet he was so dark and terrifying enough that years later he still resonates with people who have experienced him (and this includes members of my own family who saw the movie while it was in theaters). He was even included as a children’s book villain along with Captain Hook and Voldemort in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic games.
The Child Catcher can smell that there are children in the vicinity (he can also smell the tears of virgins and a single drop of blood when it’s spilled in the ocean) and the soldiers follow his nose wherever it goes…and it goes right to the Toymaker.
Now the interaction between the Toymaker and the Child Catcher is something I find interesting. There’s an obvious mutual distrust of each other for good reason, but there’s something more implied, as if they have a shared dark past (not in that sense, but in the Jack and Oogie Boogie sort of sense. Fanfic writers, get to it). The Child Catcher searches every crevice of the toy shop and finds the trap door. Caracatus, Truly, Jeremy and Jemima disguise themselves as life-size jack-in-the-boxes which put him off the scent, but just barely. The Child Catcher questions why a toymaker would be in business in a land where children are outlawed, but the Toymaker reminds him the one who keeps him from unemployment, the Baroness, calls on him to make presents for the Baron.
Excited whoops and hollers bring The Child Catcher and soldiers back outside as things take a dark turn for our heroes – Chitty has been captured.
Now not only is a family member held hostage and they’re on the run from someone who in any other country would be on a certain registered list, but they’ve lost their ride. This is turning out to be some rotten week.
Actually, the more I think about it, do you know who’s barely in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang herself.
She’s the titular character/vehicle/macguffin that everyone wants, but isn’t in the movie all that much except for when she’s needed. Now in the book, Chitty is sentient, and the movie seems to imply that through showing that it can drive, fly and activate its features on its own, and know where to go and occasionally interact with others through various small ways. I would have loved to have seen Chitty be an active character throughout and do more things that a live car could do, not just outrunning the villains but outwitting them and communicating with the Potts family like a family member, not unlike Herbie the Love Bug in his movies. In fact…
Crossover story between these two. GET TO IT, fanfic writers!
Caracatus convinces the Toymaker to take him to the castle so he can get a better idea of where Chitty and Grandpa are being kept. Truly dresses as a peasant to go get some food for her and the children, meaning Jeremy and Jemima are left in the toyshop.
With no adult around to keep them safe or out of sight.
If you thought The Child Catcher was creepy before, having him dance around in bright colors offering candy and sweets to “kiddie-winkies” is straight up terrifying. A bit on the nose, but if you’re going to get your kids to learn about stranger danger, the best way to do it is by scaring the ever-loving crap out of them.
Unfortunately, Jeremy and Jemima don’t recognize the man that literally tried to capture them minutes ago and run outside, tempted by his offers of free ice cream and lollipops and deaf to the warnings of all the adults that come outside and scream at them to stay away. He tells them the best treats are inside his wagon and they go inside, where they are instantly captured and scream for their lives as The Child Catcher takes off laughing maniacally all the way.
On one hand, yes, this was an incredibly stupid decision on their part. They were specifically told to watch out for this guy and they knew Truly was returning with food, so you could say they deserved to be caught.
On the other hand, stuff like this happens every day in real neighborhoods with real children and kidnappers. I hate to sound like a newscaster that paints the world with nothing but doom and gloom, but it’s downright horrifying. The look on Caracatus and Truly’s faces when they see them go by but are helpless to save them is tragic.
What isn’t tragic, however, is the Dudley Do-Right version of “You Two” that plays during this, and how they’re presented to the Vulgarian royalty. The Child Catcher takes them in a cage and presents the “foreign children” as a rare and dangerous species to the curious onlookers. Now this could have been a tense and possibly terrifying scene with the scared children unable to escape the peering eyes and prodding of the adults who view them more as animals than as human beings. Instead the kids just scream that their daddy’s gonna come and burn the whole castle down and tell the Baroness she’s ugly, which makes her faint. It’s a funny scene, but after what happened, I would have liked a little more drama.
Chitty, meanwhile, is brought directly to the Baron, who brings out Grandpa to show him how to make it fly. The Baroness also comes out to join him, which makes the Baron pout like a kid who’s forced to let his annoying younger sibling tag along (“Every time I want to have a little fun, she turns up!”) Chitty shares the mutual dislike of her by ejecting her out of the backseat and up into the air. Her fall is slowed via parachute skirt and the Baron tries to shoot her down, but he only shoots a hole in her dress and she lands safely in the water (better luck next time, Bomby).
That day-for-night, the Toymaker takes Caracatus and Truly by boat to a secret cavern beneath the castle. It’s here that the town’s children are hidden from the Baron and The Child Catcher.
As you can see from the above photo, being forced into hiding is what you’d barely call living. They’re filthy and cold, and the only food they can get are what they’re able to steal from the kitchens via hidden tunnels throughout the castle. The ones who brought the food inform Caracatus that Jeremy and Jemima have been locked up in the tower and Grandpa is in the dungeon. It seems so hopeless, but a child asks Caracatus if he’s there to save them, and he and Truly reassure him by singing a lovely reprise of “Hushabye Mountain”. The Toymaker brings up that singing of dreams and lullabies doesn’t exactly make their problems go away, a sentiment that even Truly agrees with (who said this movie was unrealistic?) Caracatus rallies the children with a new plan – tomorrow’s Baron Bomburst’s birthday celebration, and they’re going to give a party he’ll never forget.
The following morning, the Baron calls on his wife before the birthday festivities and –
They show their smoochy-woochy overly cutesy affection for each other in the song “Chu-Chi Face” or as I like to call it “A Child’s Introduction to S&M” (for starters, how can you not with what SHE’S wearing?!) The Baron tries to kill her in various amusing ways while she remains none the wiser and all the more obsessed with him. A funny number, but wouldn’t it have been even funnier if they were BOTH trying to get rid of each other while maintaining the sweetheart facade and they were oblivious to the other’s attempts?
The birthday ball features a rather dreary waltz of Chu-Chi Face livened up by the aristocrats adding their own childish handclaps to the routine and laughing it up like the villainous hyenas they are.
The Baron quickly gets bored of the dancing and wants to cut right to opening the presents (just like every child at their birthday party). The Toymaker is summoned, and he brings with him two unusually large boxes, one of which opens to reveal a life-size doll to which the Baron cries “Dolls? Dolls?? I have HUNDREDS of dolls!!”
Okay, ladies, gonna be real here. If your man EVER says something like that, it’s time to seriously rethink your relationship.
The Toymaker pacifies him by showing him what the doll can really do. He winds it up and it seemingly comes to life and sings and dances while spinning around on a music box. The doll is actually Truly in disguise, and her song “Doll On A Music Box” is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s the romantic fairytale notion of a maiden trapped in music box form until true love’s kiss, maybe it’s her perfectly synchronized staccato singing with the robotic movements, but Sally Ann Howe has got it down pat.
What also makes is what follows – after she finishes her song, Caracatus comes out of his box dressed as what I can only describe as a blonde Raggedy Andy marionette. And again, Dick Van Dyke does what he does best and dances around like a crazy puppet.
After that, Caracatus winds up the music box and enters into a duet with Truly using a reprise of “Truly Scrumptious” as a counterpoint. Both their voices compliment each other nicely, but Caracatus keeps getting interrupted when he’s knocked around by Truly doing the robot or when he’s distracted by noticing how silly his makeup is in the mirror (the soundtrack version is mercifully uninterrupted). This is enough to arouse the Baron’s suspicion and he inspects the toys for himself up close. Just as they’re about to be discovered, Caracatus goes into another dance and gets the Baron to join him. This provides the distraction needed for the plan to go into action.
The children come up through a hidden door and shackle the nobles’ feet together while some others drop a hook from a hole in the ceiling. Caracatus gets the Baron on to the hook where he’s pulled up above the unsuspecting crowd. The kids make themselves known, net the surprised nobles and scare the Baroness while trashing the party.
Caracatus, Truly and the Toymaker find and free Jeremy and Jemima while the guards fail to deal with the children and the townsfolk storm the castle in angry mob form. In the midst of all this, the two spies finally reach Vulgaria only to take one look at the battle and decide to swim back to England (smart move). And then –
Look, the story’s wrapping up and there’s only so many times you can hammer it in that you’re evil before the readers get sick of it. Moving on.
Now The Child Catcher has entered the scene, understandably terrifying the children. But as he approaches one group, another sneaks up from behind to attack. He quickly realizes that he’s only one man, outnumbered and surrounded. Now the tables have turned and HE’S the one who’s caught, and it’s never been more satisfying.
The Baron, meanwhile, escapes with the Baroness through the cellars, but the children had anticipated this and trap them in the Child Catcher’s wagon. Truly, the Potts family and the Toymaker fight the guards and Chitty barges in on her own to get them out of here with Grandpa appears in the scuffle as well (I would have loved to have seen them escape from wherever they were held captive but we’re nearing the end so whatever).
And so the day is won, Vulgaria is given back to the people, the family is reunited, and Chitty takes to the air as everyone waves goodbye.
And that’s the end of the story.
…the story that Caracatus was telling on the beach.
It never happened.
Everything that happened in the past hour and a half that took up the main plot, the source of the conflict, the music, the adventures? None of it really happened.
And I HATE that.
It turns the whole plot into a non-plot. Any character progression or sense of magic is lost. It renders everything pointless. At least the musical had the decency to keep it real in the end because the audience is so invested. With this slap back to reality, we lose that investment. It’s the cinematic equivalent of having to come home from a Disney World trip; one minute you’re having a fantasmagorical time among this whimsy and wonder and then the next you’re on the shuttle back to the airport begging your parents “Awww, do we HAVE to go?” as that castle gets further and further away.
Now I know other movies have employed this and similar tropes before but they pull it off because they know how to properly use them. In The Princess Bride we cut back and forth between the action in the story and the grandfather reading it so you remember it’s all happening in a book. With The Wizard of Oz there’s plenty of dream logic throughout so you kind of remember Dorothy’s dreaming the whole plot (though frankly I never believed it was all just a dream, not even as a kid). Here, apart from the transitions at the beginning and end, we get no indication that this is still only a story we’re watching. And it takes me out of it so badly it just…it just…
Will you go choke on another fish? I’m not even done reviewing the movie. Come back and complain when it’s over!
So anyway, Caracatus wraps up his story and Jemima and Jeremy cap it off by saying he and Truly got married. Truly doesn’t seem too embarrassed but Caracatus is clearly uncomfortable. He drives Truly home and attempts to apologize for his children trying to ship them, citing it would never work because of class differences.
Wait, when was class difference ever a problem in this movie? Why bring it up now? Was that just the first excuse he could think of so he could save some face? Was the music box routine in the story supposed to symbolize that with her being up on a pedestal and stuck in moving in rigid precise circles and him being more flexible and loose but lower than her? Truly calls Caracatus out on it by saying if she said something like that, then he’d consider her a snob and storms off. Caracatus informs the children that Truly won’t be joining them on any more picnics and has to drive the rest of the way home knowing he completely blew it.
They arrive back at the house to find none other than Lord Scrumptious reenacting battles with Grandpa using toy soldiers. Scrumptious is uncharacteristically delighted to see Caracatus and Grandpa explains – Scrumptious was his commanding officer during the war and they were very close friends. Scrumptious then tells him his reason for being there; apparently the toot sweets went over better with the dogs than they did with the humans so he’s decided to market them as the first candy made exclusively for canines. Before Caracatus signs the standard-rich-and-famous contract, he dashes off to tell Truly.
Truly, however, learned the news from the servants and is already on her way over to see him. They meet on the road and Truly fulfills the comedic Rule of Three by swerving over into the same pond for a third time. Caracatus scoops her up and admits that the kids were on to something when they said they should get married.
Well this IS before children’s entertainment realized that maybe couples should know each other for more than three days before rushing into marriage. And for all we know Caracatus is referring to them getting married someday as opposed to tomorrow morning. And they kiss.
And then, while they drive back home, Chitty starts to fly.
After establishing that the powers Chitty has were all part of a story being told, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang can in fact, fly.
Was the story real the whole time?! Did Caracatus install a Flubber-powered engine while sprucing up Chitty?! Did Truly and Caracatus really crash into each other and this was their symbolic ascent to heaven? Are all musical movies involving cars required to end with a car spontaneously flying while the couple wave to their friends back on terra firma? The only other explanation I could give is Caracatus has the same reality warping powers as Baron Munchausen despite almost no sign of them before the story was being told.
Okay, I’m willing to go along with some of the leaps of logic in this movie since it’s a fantasy and a musical and it’s made for families during a much simpler and innocent time, but this just boggles me to no end. As much as I complained about making everything magical all part of a story, if you’re going to do that then you have to stick with it. You can’t just backtrack and go “or WAS it?”. You’re not M. Night Shyamalan (and lord knows even he can’t keep his plot twists straight half the time). You either keep it real or you don’t, you can’t have it both ways.
Are you done poorly ripping off Lord of the Rings quotes?
Well, I am done. And after all the nonsensical plot twists, bizarre story and character choices, numerous musical numbers and WTF ending, I have to say…
…that I still like this movie a lot.
Precious said – er, I said that I still like this movie.
I know, and Mary Poppins will always be the superior movie, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang managed to take a lot of its tropes and forge its own unique identity from it. There are people out there who remember this film just as fondly and share it with their children just like their parents did with them. Seth McFarlane and Jon Favreau have cited Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as one of their biggest inspirations. Nearly everyone who worked on this movie had a wonderful time making it and it shows onscreen. How bad can a film be if it inspires others to do great things and help others make lasting memories over it?
Yes, but even if it doesn’t make sense at times, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this movie. It doesn’t teach any bad morals, and apart from the insanely catchy songs there’s nothing in there that would annoy adults. There’s a lot in here that parents can enjoy as much as children can. Frankly I’d rather put this movie on for kids instead of something like Alvin and the Chipmunks. So to reiterate –
You know what this movie is, cynicism?
It’s a simple two-and-a-half-hour film meant to distract and have fun. Yes it has problems, but so do all films. I may point them out sometimes or maybe make a joke or two while watching the movie, but never out of spite or hate. The stage version even manages to fix most of those problems. The movie could be better, but for what we got it’s not at all bad. I can’t even call its origins terrible because it didn’t arise from the need to cash in on Mary Poppins. It came from a father realizing he was neglecting his son and him creating something to show how much he really cared.
And you know what you are?
You’re a screencap of Gollum with the hair from the girl from The Ring poorly photoshopped on top of you so I can make a symbol representing my occasionally repressed but relentless cynicism. You’re a joke so hammered in to make a point that I’m surprised Doug Walker hasn’t shoved you into one of his reviews yet. There are so many reviewers out there, good ones even, that rely on being negative and criticizing every aspect of what they look at. I started reviewing because I wanted to focus on the good things, to introduce great movies that are often overlooked, and offer ideas on how to improve instead of tearing down with hatred.
I’ve done at least half a year’s worth of reviews without you, and I can keep on doing them that way, so I suggest you leave now and never come back.
Leave NOW and NEVER come BACK!
LEAVE NOW AND NEVER COME BACK!!
…It’s gone. I’m free!
Well, I’m glad that’s done. As you can see, this is a movie I enjoy in spite of all its flaws. Still, I wish I knew how the ending could even be possible…
Really, Baron? Do go on.
…Huh. Call me crazy, but I think that wraps up everything. There’s only one other note this review can end on.
Take it away, Dick!
Thank you for reading. If you like what you see and want more reviews, vote for what movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.
Thanks to Ben Waldburger for letting me use (and build on) his Truly/Mary theory, for filling me in on what happens in the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and reminding me why this movie is so great.
Kudos if you caught the “Night of the Comet” reference (hi, honey!)