Easter Egg: On Disc 1 in the Special Features Menu, move the arrow key and highlight Main Menu. Then press the Down button, and the car speedometer will turn red. Press Enter, and a 2-page breakdown of the car's construction appears.
About a year before the release of “Goldfinger,” author Ian Fleming suffered the first of two heart attacks, and it was during his recuperation that he found personal escape by writing his kiddie tale, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Doing double-duty between Bond films, producer Albert Broccoli engaged “You Only Live Twice” screenwriter Roald Dahl – himself a noted author of rather twisted children's tales – and Bond scribe Richard Maibaum to write the screenplay, along with director Ken Hughes. The result is a rather epic tale that, amazingly, continues to be a favourite with children, in spite of its near 2 and ½ hour length (a piddle break at 85 minutes helps).
Having grown up with the film via endless TV airings, “Chitty” contains a terrifying character known as Child-Catcher, who prowls the village streets on his mobile paddy wagon, brandishing a long net, and sharp hook. At 10, this guy scared the heck out of me, and remains one of the film's most potent, and resonant scenes. Add a melancholy music-box song performed by Sally Ann Howes, some sly adult humour, and you have a film that straddles elements from the Grimm's fables, and Warner Bros cartoons.
MGM's disc is, to put it simply, gorgeous. Christopher Challis' epic widescreen lensing maximizes the amazing set designs by Bond regular Ken Adam, and there's some truly astonishing compositions that cannot be enjoyed in fullscreen. The sound has been remastered to a dynamic 5.1 mix, and the Sherman Bros.' music never sounded better.
An attached booklet, onscreen read-along feature, sing-along option, a pair of games, and printable colouring book are deliberately designed for the kids; and the current owner of the fully working movie car provides a doting tour of the vehicle in “Fantasmagorical Motocar,” never breaking the auto's mythic flying and swimming options.
For adults, the extras include a genial recollection of cast and film moments by star Dick Van Dyke, though depth is sometimes limited (no doubt thinking of the wee ones). Fleming's book – which differed in spots from the film – is reduced to a mere mention, and the film's position in producer Broccoli's hugely successful filmography is, ironically, never really dealt with (though Broccoli himself revealed little in his own autobiography). The set also minimizes background info on the composers, though their website, and a 2003 profile in Film Score Monthly, exist.
The most intriguing extras, however, remain fourteen demo songs, performed by the Sherman Bros. at the piano (with their own chronological intros); and a vintage featurette, “The Ditching Tinkerer,” on Rowland Emett, who designed the intricate inventions for the film. (Some of Emett's other gizmos were also showcased at the Ontario Science Center, which never failed to attract passersby because of the intricate moving parts.)
Overall, MGM's set is well-balanced for fans, families, and children, but parents should ride the remote control carefully, as each menu-return replays the film's corkscrew-song again and again… and it won't leave the brain for days.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan