[5 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Those who lament the “death” of the modern movie musical have rather selective memories. While they bemoan the lost masterworks and talents of the past, they fail to remember the hackwork that finally destroyed the genre. Indeed, when Burt Bacharach and Hal David scored the ‘70s remake of Lost Horizon, turning it into a jumbled stream of consciousness mish-mash of pre-New-Age humanism and non-hummable anti-show tunes, no one was praising this take on the beloved all-singing, all-dancing cinema. Sadly, the beginning of the end was already in sight long before Bobby Van lilted to little children about questioning him an answer (?).
During the previous decade, Hollywood saw studios like Disney and Fox light up the box office with Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music respectively and wondered why their name wasn’t on the libretto. And out of that mad dash to make mine music, a whole lot of coffin nails were fashioned for the burial chamber of the cinematic version of the Great White Way. Doctor Doolittle did nothing to make wee ones forget their aching behinds, and miscalculations like the musical version of Goodbye Mr. Chips proved that the aforementioned Horizon would only end up walloping an already deceased Appaloosa. And then there is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Long thought of as a certain British nanny’s bastard sibling, this supernatural spree into strange currencies is either the worst House of Mouse songfest the omnipresent cartoon corporation never made, or a decent attempt at a fun family film.
Jeremy and Jemima, the twin offspring of absent-minded inventor Caractacus Potts, are in love with a junk car they’ve found, and they want their father to buy it for them. But Potts has limited funds, and when he does get money he sinks it into his contraptions. He tries to sell some of his homemade sweets to the local candy maker, Lord Scrumptious. Even with the help of his Lordship’s daughter, a pretty young gal named Truly, the treats are rejected. But after an eventful night at a local fair, the tinkering tool master raises the money, buys the vehicle, spends weeks renovating it, and re-christens it Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Why? Because that’s the sound the motor makes.
Together with Truly, Caractacus and the twins set out for a picnic. Everything goes splendidly. But there is trouble afoot. Mr. Potts tells the story of Baron Bomburst and his desire to steal Chitty. Suddenly, pirates are attacking and the Baron is nearby, employing his spies to get the car. The villains kidnap Grandpa Potts instead. Eventually, everyone ends up in Vulgaria, a miserable little country where the Baron’s wife has outlawed children. Will Caractacus, Truly, and the children be able to save their beloved Grandfather and help the townsfolk? Or is this the end of the fantastic motorcar?
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a hard movie to categorize. It requires a level of understanding beyond what is simply on the screen and screams ‘importance’ and ‘power’ when it should really reel in the pretensions and merely entertain. It languishes over ideas that other films have done better and borrows so heavily from inside (and outside) the artform that it almost feels like watching the alternate version of some of Hollywood’s finest song-oriented sensations. It is a trifurcated mess, a movie that uses a famous text (in this case, Ian Fleming’s children’s novel) and then lets Willy Wonka’s creator (Roald Dahl had a hand in the script) fuse a candy factory fallacy onto the plot. Just when it seems like all the phantasmagorical car chaos is over with, it throws in a fantasy trip to Vulgaria to really confuse things.
The main source of the film’s fancy, the music, is also a strange amalgamation of previous popular Tinseltown sound-alikes mixed with really awkward attempts at cornball classicism. Sometimes everything comes together to render the madness manageable and harmonious. Other times, the divergent elements threaten to break the narrative apart at the saccharine seams. There is a lot to love about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, from the imaginative inventions and crackerjack energy of the dance numbers. But just when it seems like the film will take off, it instead fizzles and pops much like Caractacus Potts with the rocket pack strapped to his back. You could actually consider Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a spent firecracker.
For the most part, the cast is fantastic. Dick Van Dyke drops the cockney crow and turns the “cracked” Mr. Potts into a noble visionary, an absent-minded professor with a real sense of responsibility. Stage legend Sally Ann Howes, hampered with one of the worst ballads ever transcribed to the bass and treble clefs, rises above the marginal material to make her obviously named Truly Scrumptious a more than passive paramour. Even Goldfinger himself, Gert Frobe, and that English rascal of randiness, Benny Hill, make excellent and entertaining co-stars. In the hands of action director Ken Hughes (Timeslip, Casino Royale), there is an epic splendor (almost too much so) and a visual oddness that invokes the fantasy elements very well.
But song-wise, the film is very hit or miss. The Sherman Brothers, notorious for bringing to life many of Disney’s most delightful musical numbers, are here doing the same thing that made Mickey’s magic kingdom so melodious. But unlike other attempts to mimic their mass appeal success with Mary Poppins, the Brothers never truly get the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang tunes off the ground. The theme is a really catchy celebration of the title automobile and “Me Ol Bamboo” does “Step in Time” one better. But when they turn on the schmaltz machine, cranking out the supposedly twinkling trills to evoke truth and beauty, the dewy derivativeness soaks through your sensibilities. Just like the fantasy/reality dynamic at play in the film, the musical mortar is also loose and unstable here.
Everything about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is big, overblown, and redundant. Sets aren’t just large; they scale new heights of artist interpretation, from a candy factory that looks like it was owned by Dr. Caligari (or JP Rockefeller) to an inventor’s workshop that out-imagines that rube, Goldberg. Nothing seems practical, from the rowboat seats in Chitty’s chassis to the rotor wings that supposedly lift the wondercar into the clouds. Engineering improbabilities are perhaps the last thing a children’s fantasy film should be focusing on, but there has to be some level of believability in the far-fetched and freakish. Without something centered in the pragmatic, everything moves from special to surreal. And delirious daftness without rhyme or reason is just plain boring…and at the core of this film.
It’s just all so very, very weird. What other movie in the history of the genre featured a feeble old man character (grandpa Potts) making a daily adventure out of visiting the outhouse? Why do the people of Vulgaria allow their leader to outlaw children, especially when an army of the bold brats led by Van Dyke can easily overwhelm their sad excuses for soldiers? Is the entire second half of the film a fantasy? Or did it really happen? And should we care either way? As a matter of fact, had the movie simply followed the adventures of the Potts clan as they learned the secrets of Chitty, it would have benefited when held up to closer scrutiny.
But no, we need a great race adventure and once it goes global, nothing really works. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is like cramming two pieces of a pre-school puzzle together with the hope that no one notices the misaligned edges and inconsistent images. In the end, Van Dyke, Howe, and the children keep the entire movie afloat, making merriment out of potential excrement at every turn. Along with a few fine numbers by the Brothers Sherm and some spectacular visuals, this is one movie musical that should been better, but is understandably not as bad as history holds.