I, as you may have guessed by this point, have a soft spot for a well-made kids movie. Because, and this may be obvious to some, they are inherently well-made. The target audience doesn’t change that an excellent piece of filmmaking is still an excellent piece of filmmaking. Unfortunately, children’s cinema is, and always has been since it appeared as a genre, oversaturated with what can only be referred to as less than quality films. And that is why when I say ‘movies made for children’ you think ‘Hotel Transylvania 3’, and not the far superior ‘The Goonies’. (Go watch ‘The Goonies’, heaven knows you have enough time to).
‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ is so good specifically because it knows where it’s strengths lie. It knows that it needs to entertain children, and so it goes all out. Everything is pushed to the extreme. The grandad isn’t just captured, he’s captured by evil Vulgarian spies that have hoisted his shed up by a blimp, all the while he’s still raving about visiting the Maharaja. And that’s just one five-minute set piece in a two and half hour film. It’s totally nuts, but somehow it works.
Amongst all of this, there’s a semblance of a plot. Caractacus Potts (Dick van Dyke) and his two children, along with his love interest, Truly Scrumptious, (Sally Ann Howes) visit sweet factories, fly off the edge of cliffs in a car chasing after evil ne’er do wells, visit strange lands and, naturally, save the day, because how else would it end? After all, this is a children’s film.
But it is not for the plot that anyone would choose to watch this film. It is for the pure imagination on display. The art department must have had an insane amount of fun while working on this film. Every small little detail, every costume, every set piece is wonderfully created with the express intention of being as off the rails as possible. Actually, to say that this film is off the rail would be to do it a disservice. This film has no need for the rails in the first place.
Holding it together is Dick van Dyke, clowning his way through the absurdity of it all. When I used to watch this film as a much smaller child, I used to think that Dick van Dyke wasn’t doing something that difficult. And that is where his genius lies. He clowns in such a way that every moment seems perfectly natural, and not at all straining. In truth, he pulls off some of the most impressive dance routines that I have seen in a film for a long time.
Of course, the film isn’t perfect. Tonally, it feels a bit weird. There are some very funny scenes, at least humorous, and then it plays it’s darker scenes with the same kind of humour, and it all feels a bit weird. The ‘You’re my little Chu-Chi Face’ scene stands out as something that at first glance seems funny and relatively innocent, but at its core is overtly sinister.
And it’s not just the feel of the film. It’s far too long. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just that two and a half hours for a lighthearted Dick van Dyke flick is a bit extensive. Unfortunately, the film uses this extra time to fully explore the relationship between Caractacus and Truly, which, to tell you the honest truth, should not have ever been in the film to begin with. It drags the film to a grinding halt at some points, and feels like it is the film pandering the adults in the room, instead of wholly focusing on enthralling the younger audience members.
The film recovers, and there is actually a small payoff from the film building their relationship in the ‘Music Box’ scene, which is truly wonderful, and it’s worth watching the entire film for just that four-minute sequence. It’s truly wonderful, and I challenge anyone who has seen the film to say otherwise.
But after this moment, the film again wishes us to be invested in their love story, and take from someone who was once a seven-year-old. Seven-year-olds don’t care about whether the leads end up getting married, or falling in love, and so the film – which in many ways is as if pure childhood imagination was put directly onto the silver screen – should have concentrated on the aspects of the story which the seven-year-olds will care about. And it doesn’t: which is a shame, because this film should be hailed as a classic, as opposed to always playing second fiddle to the, unfortunately better, ‘Mary Poppins’
With this said, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ is still, and forever will be, the second-best musical film from the late sixties that was adapted from a book, with music by Irwin Kostal in which Dick van Dyke plays an Englishman who has an overactive imagination. I guess second place ain’t bad.