In 1964, film-goers gawked, then cheered for what would become the most celebrated unofficial word in the English language -- supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. A feat to say, much less spell, it was the precursor to the fine four-fendered friend that took the screen in 1968 with Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts, the absent-minded inventor who restores a ramshackle motor car to its former glory -- and beyond. After a failed attempt at marketing his latest invention (toot sweets) to local business magnet, Lord Scrumptious (James Robertson Justice), a crestfallen Caractacus surprises his children, Jeremy and Jemima (Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley), by bringing home the dilapidated contraption, which he rebuilds and names "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" to the children's delight. While on a picnic with Lord Scrumptious' beautiful daughter, Truly, in tow, Caractacus entertains the children with a tale that takes Chitty on the adventure of a lifetime to escape the evil clutches of Baron Bomburst. When the baron sends his duo of bungling spies to steal Chitty to the kingdom of Vulgaria, a case of mistaken identity leads to the kidnapping of Grandpa Potts (Lionel Jeffries), whom Caractus and his companions set out to rescue with the aid of the magical motor car with a mind of its own. On arriving in Vulgaria (where children are imprisoned by the decree of the Baroness Bomburst), fantasy blends with reality as Caractacus and Truly lead a mission of incredible (and humorous) proportions that will leave viewers cheering for this comical and enchanting film.
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond series), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had the good fortune of falling into the hands of acclaimed children's author, Roald Dahl, who became screen-writer for the film after the publication of his novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964. Also on the writing crew were Academy Award-winning composers Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman, who had previously written scores for The Parent Trap (1961), The Sword and the Stone (1963), and Mary Poppins (1964). Following a successful working relationship with the Sherman brothers, Dick van Dyke took up the role of Caractacus Potts after his enthusiastic portrayal of Bert the chimney sweep launched his career as a comedy actor on the big screen. Van Dyke's talent as a singer and dancer were apposite for the film's memorable musical numbers, which include the title song, the burlesque performance of "Me Ol' Bamboo," and the hauntingly beautiful "Hushabye Mountain." (As a trivia side-note, Van Dyke's dance numbers were put on hold for six weeks after he tore a leg muscle during the filming of the song "Toot Sweets"). In her second-to-last film role, theatre-actress Sally Ann Howes (who was then famous for her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in London's West End) charmed adults and children alike with the colorful (and cheerfully robotic) performance of "Doll On a Music Box." Despite praise in the UK and other parts of Europe, the film received scathing reviews from Hollywood critics for its "forgettable score." Although undeserved, this was not surprising, since Hollywood was then preoccupied with the premiers of 2001: A Space Odssey, Night of the Living Dead, Funny Girl, and Rosemary's Baby. As the years passed, however, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang rose to prominence (typical of films unappreciated in their time) and was adapted into a West End production in 2002 starring Michael Ball (The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserbles) as Caractacus Potts.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of several films that cater to the young viewer's unique fascination with dubious subjects (from elephants to nannies) taking flight. The film's special effects (another topic of scorn in Hollywood) are decidedly poor for the decade, resulting in many of the scenes involving the titular character's extraordinary transformations (from a floatation device to a flying machine) to come off as cheesy. Should viewers choose to look upon the solidity of the film as the heart-warming and profound essence of imagination, however, they will be pleased with the intense feeling of nostalgia that is the main captivating quality of the film. The chemistry between Van Dyke and Howes is preeminent, a credit to Howes' ability to conform to the presence and musical style of her costars. Although the film's poor reviews precipitated Howes' departure from the film industry, she nevertheless went on to star in the lead roles of the London productions of The Sound of Music and The King and I. Amongst the other must-see factors are the comical performances of Lionel Jeffries (who starred as Grandpa Potts despite being a year younger than Dick Van Dyke) and Gert Frobë, whose portrayal of Baron Bomburst is likened to that of a plus-sized ruler in a hallucinogenic version of Candy Land. Primarily, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a delightful testimony to the power of the imagination, which in simplicity is the basis for the inventor in us all and makes this endearing family-flick a classic that shall remain "truly scrumptious" for decades to come.