Everyone agrees that DVD has become a huge success. However, not everyone agrees on the criteria to measure it. Some judge the sheer volume of machines in the marketplace (roughly 60 million and counting) as one reason, another with the fact that 2003 saw DVD rentals outpace its VHS counterpart. I have my own yardstick: the handling of catalog titles. When the studios treat older titles with the same dignity and respect as brand new product, then I consider the format "arrived." Ladies and gentleman, as proof of my hypothesis, I offer the 1968 musical fantasy "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
First released in 1998, that DVD was excoriated among fans of the film specifically and video purists in general for the reason that the studio saw fit to shoehorn "Chitty’s" Super Panavision cinematography into a pan-and-scan disc. (Being branded with THX certification made it all the more smarting.) MGM Home Entertainment countered the criticism by stating that "Chitty" qualified as a "children’s" film and kids aren’t particular about letterboxing. Five years later, MGM not only rectifies the "error" with a sparkling anamorphic widescreen transfer, but with a generous helping of extras and elaborate packaging that makes this two-disc set a very special edition indeed.
"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" first sprang into the world as a novel from the pen of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. So, it seemed quite natural that the producer responsible for bringing "Chitty" to the screen was the same man who brought cinematic life to Fleming’s other literary creation: Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli.
The film begins with a brief exposition during the main title credits of Chitty’s pedigree as a famed European racecar in England, circa 1909. Rusting in a junkyard after a tragic accident, the car becomes the playground for siblings Jeremy and Jemima Potts (Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley). When a junkman threatens to melt down Chitty, the children implore their father, inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) to purchase it. As his inventions have not taken the world by storm, coming up with the required thirty shillings presents some difficulties. A stroke of good fortune lands Potts the needed money and he goes about restoring Chitty to her former glory. However, something magical happens.
Chitty emerges from Potts’ garage looking far more resplendent than her days on the racing circuit. Her maiden trip to the seashore for a picnic brings Potts, Chitty and company into the literal direct path of Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes). Truly joins them and soon the quarter frolics and sings at the beach. Soon thereafter, Potts spins the tale of how Chitty has caught the malevolent eye of the villainous Baron Bomburst (Gert Frobe) of Vulgaria and his incessant efforts to capture Chitty for his own nefarious purposes (The book‘s antagonist was the very British gangster Joe the Monster). The remainder of the film musically charts Chitty’s transformations, from flying car to floating vehicle, and the Potts’ adventures not only in England but in the Vulgarian court and countryside as well.
As directed by Ken Hughes and adapted by Hughes and Roald Dahl, the same author responsible for "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "Chitty" on the surface reads like a rip-off of the 1964 Walt Disney musical "Mary Poppins." Broccoli raided many of the talents from that film for his family film epic: star Van Dyke, song composers Richard & Robert Sherman, orchestrator Irwin Kostal and choreographers Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, not to mention both sharing plots involving children and magic in Edwardian times. However, that’s where the similarity ends. With no disrespect intended, if faced with watching "Poppins" or "Chitty," I’ll take the motorcar any day despite its formidable two and a half hour running time.
Watching it today from a more critical perspective yielded a new observation I did not count on: the film is really a James Bond film, kid-sized for family consumption. Potts himself is an absent minded professor version of the Bond gadget guru "Q" with the car the biggest gizmo of all. There are exotic locales, fanciful bad guys (Gert’s presence more than recalls "Goldfinger") and even more memorable henchmen (Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher holds court among the top five family film villains, up there with Stromboli, Maleficent and Darth Vader). Unfortunately, "Chitty" also borrows from the Bond formula of a video-game style plot with little character development or arcs. Potts and the rest of the crew is pretty much the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Don’t get me wrong; I adore the film, warts and all but compared to either "Poppins" or "Wonka," "Chitty" doesn’t have quite the same emotional punch as those musical fantasies. Like I said, no matter.
I don’t remember "Chitty" looking as good in the movie theater as it does on this DVD. The first disc holds both two viewing options: anamorphic widescreen and full-frame courtesy of DVD-18 technology. I prefer the letterbox version but I applaud MGM for giving a choice and making the disc as inclusive as possible in catering to the two video camps. (According to a discussion I had with a MGM rep three years ago, there was every intention to release "Chitty" in both full-frame and widescreen but DVD-18 had not been perfected yet.) Framed at a perfect 2.20 aspect ratio (the film was shot in 65mm), the image could not be more colorful, vibrant or detailed. From the first few minutes, it became very evident that the source print underwent some restoration because not only does the color palette seem as storybook shiny as ever but even the physical condition looks superb, with nary a blemish or speckle. The image gets a little grainy and slightly color-challenged during the blue screen process shots, but that’s how I remember it; even as a kid, I always wondered about the funny blue [matte] line during the flying and floating scenes. Compression and digital artifacts are happily absent. Compared to the letterboxed laserdisc, well, there is NO comparison.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack won’t shatter windows, but creates a nicely expansive front soundstage with adequate dynamic range and timbre. The rear channels chime in during the musical numbers and more dramatic moments. Crank it up during "Me Ol’ Bamboo," which ranks with the "Gaston" number from Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast" as one of the all-time great "manly" songs ever written. The LFE track didn’t get much workout, other than the occasional cannon shot. Despite the dated sound, I found the audio to be overall enjoyable and perfectly complimentary to the visual presentation. There are also French and Spanish stereo surround tracks and a Portuguese mono track.
Now comes the fun stuff, beginning with the packaging itself. The DVDs are housed in a foldout as well as a 16 page booklet with a story synopsis and beautiful color pictures from the film. The menus feature a computer rendered flying Chitty accompanied to music cues before outlining the options.
Disc one houses the film on both sides of the DVD-18 (full screen & widescreen), but also a "Sing-Along" feature that allows kids and nostalgic adults to join in the merriment. The last extra on the first disc is a two minute plus trailer for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" the stage musical. Scenes from the play and behind the scenes video unfold against songs from the show. The stage orchestrations feel a bit strange after hearing the film versions for the last 30-odd years, but just to see Brian Blessed as Baron Bomburst or Richard O’Brien ("Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s" creator and "Riff-Raff") as the Child Catcher would be worth the price of admission. (The trailer was designed for UK audiences but an insert in the DVD package promises that "Chitty" will land on Broadway in 2004.)
The bulk of the special features reside on the second disc. First up is a newly produced interview with star Dick Van Dyke, Running twenty five minutes, "Remembering ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’" runs the gamut from how he got involved in the project to a thorough walk down memory lane, praising the cast and crew members to a fault. A real sense of pride in his association with the production comes through and I found his comments at the end about the dearth of contemporary family films and the longevity of "Chitty" quite poignant.
The second newly produced sit-down interview is with British circus performer Pierre Picton, the present owner of the actual Chitty. "A Fantasmagorical Motorcar" details Pierre’s involvement with the production and how he eventually came to be the owner (he brought two of the Chitty motorcars from producer Broccoli in 1973). He proudly explains the auto’s features and accessories (the wings are fiber-glass now, but still have the red-yellow design) before taking it out for a spin in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Picton and Chitty reside. (The famed hamlet can now boast keeping the flame of two legends: William Shakespeare and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!) The scenes of townspeople cheering on the curb may seem a bit manufactured, but for a split second I got goose bumps seeing the "real" Chitty ease on down the road.
A real find for fans are the Sherman Brothers song demos. Thirteen songs are presented audio only, with an interesting liner note about how the tapes were discovered and, in a few cases, why some didn’t end up in the film. The songs, including "You Two," "Roses of Success," "Hushabye Mountain" and the title song, are performed on piano with the Sherman Brothers doing the vocals. For something forgotten for the last three decades, the audio was surprisingly clean sounding, with little distortion.
Three vintage features come across as standard PR fare for the time. "The Ditchling Tinkerer" spotlights Rowland Emett, the real inventor behind Potts’ inventions. Whimsical in tone, the camera witnesses Emett stealing things around the house and ending up in the Breakfast Machine or Potts’ Haircutting Hut. The "Dick Van Dyke" interview taps out at little under nine minutes, with Dick fielding questions from a heard-but-not-seen press corps. Again, standard "What’s your favorite scene?" type queries, but it was interesting to hear his thoughts when asked about the mod fashions of 1967 London. At little under three minutes, "The Potts’ Children" vignette offers actor Adrian Hall ("Jeremy") narrating how he and Heather Ripley made it through the days of "hurry up and wait." Cute, but instantly forgettable.
In the "Vintage Advertising Gallery," there are two trailers and five TV spots. The "Theatrical Trailer" has elements of the original theatrical trailer presented on the letterbox laserdisc, but curiously this time around the image curiously switches between full-screen and non-anamophic widescreen. The French theatrical trailer is just that: the US theatrical trailer but with a French dialogue track and title translation ("Fantasmagorique!"). The TV spots look beat up, but I actually remember seeing them. The Photo Gallery offers a straightforward manually activated scroll of 50-plus stills from the production and film.
If most of the supplements seem to be targeted towards the adults, there are a few extras aimed squarely at kids. " Toot Sweet Special Delivery" and "One Person’s Junk is Another Person’s Jalopy" are two games involving target practice in the first instance and a scavenger hunt in the second. The "Coloring Pages" require DVD-ROM access where pages can be printed for coloring. Finally, four trailers highlighting MGM family-friendly titles are presented full-screen including "The Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" and a new animated rendition of "A Christmas Carol" featuring the voices of Kate Winslet and Nicolas Cage (as Marley!).
"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" has indeed finally arrived on DVD, properly letterboxed and presented with the utmost respect. For fans of the film or family films in general, this special edition is not only recommended, it’s indispensable.