To start, I’m going to establish an acronym. From this point forward, because I feel ridiculous typing it out, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” will be “CCBB.”
I think the story goes that when I was very young and had the chicken pox, one of my mother’s friends gave us a few movies to watch to take my mind off my itchiness, and these movies included a Care Bears special and CCBB. Neither, I know now, were favorites with my mom, but while I completely understood that about the Care Bears, I couldn’t remember much not to like about CCBB. I watched it over and over and over, to the degree that I still know most of the words to the title song. When it showed up on Netflix, I wavered between wanting to watch it and relive old memories and wanting to let it remain as it was in my pre-school mind, just in case it’s really not that great of a movie. In the end, I decided I would risk ruining a childhood memory and watch the film for the first time in more than two decades.
Before re-watching, however, I of course had to do some background research. To my astonishment, I discovered that CCBB was almost universally panned when it first came out, its best compliment being that it was at least a kid-friendly break from the violent or frightening releases of that year (which included Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby). I also discovered that the script was written by Roald Dahl, one of my all-time favorite writers, and so I began to question not just whether I was mistaken about this movie, but whether I had any taste at all. Was CCBB really so terrible? Did I only like it because I was a kid?
So I sat down one evening to answer that question. I queued up CCBB and settled in, and unwittingly conducted a little experiment. You see, my toddler was in the room with me, and I noticed that for every part I remember loving when I was small, she stared entranced at the television. For every part I remember finding a little tedious, she quit paying attention. For instance, during the opening credits, which roll over a fast-reeled history of Chitty’s life as a race car, my daughter ignored the screen. The history meant nothing to me as a kid, even though I believe it’s meant to establish an emotional connection to the car. When the Potts children are back at their house and an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine cooks and serves them their meal, she stared open-mouthed at the screen. By the time Dick Van Dyke does his song and dance at the circus to earn money to buy CCBB, she was in my lap, dancing and clapping along.
About a third of the way into the movie, things get a little weird. For no reason that I can discern, Truly Scrumptious (daughter of Mr. Scrumptious, who owns the local sweets factory), finds herself falling in love with Caractacus Potts. We enter a dream/fantasy sequence, during which Chitty displays a previously unknown amphibious ability, and Grandpa is abducted by two Vulgarian spies, who behave and dress somewhat like Charlie Chaplin when they are not disguised as ship exhaust pipes. Chitty, Mr. Potts, Truly, and the children plunge over a cliff prior to intermission, and when the film returns, Chitty adds “flying” to her list of heretofore hidden skills. The group flies to Vulgaria, where things get a little weirder.
In Vulgaria, children are forbidden because their ruler hates children, and so Truly, Mr. Potts, and the kids find themselves hiding in a toymaker’s cellar while a snatcher with a German accent walks above their hiding place. I’m not sure what I expected to discover about this movie when I watched it again, but it certainly wasn’t a Holocaust allegory. Anyway, they’re taken to a grotto full of children, and together they come up with a plan to escape and deal with the Baron…
If you’re bored and a little confused by the plot at this point, you’re not alone. It took real strength of will to make it past the intermission of this movie, and by the time Grandpa was doing a dance with his fellow prisoners in bad old-age makeup, I was ready to quit watching and just assume it all ended with a “happily ever after.” By this point, my daughter was napping (having lost interest around the time the Vulgarian spies showed up). Imagining this movie playing on loop, I could easily understand why my mom was not a fan.
To answer the question “is it still good?”, however, I’d like to return to my unplanned experiment. As I noted, my daughter loved every part I remember loving, and do you know why I think that is? Because those parts are really entertaining. This movie struggles plot-wise, but it’s got some wonderful nonsense (like Caractacus Potts’s inventions) and great choreography. The “Toot Sweets” number (please forgive the title) is just plain fun to watch, and Dick Van Dyke displays some pretty impressive footwork during “Me Ol’ Bamboo.” The lyrics are silly, but that’s just something you have to embrace if you watch this film. Overall, I still had a good time with this, but it would’ve been just as good if I’d quit watching at intermission.