A Critical Reading of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (For Fun)

Ed Ramsey

There are musicals that last, and there are musicals that don't. But sometimes the musicals that last shouldn't, and the musicals that don't, should. That's not what I'm going into now, but it sets the tone for what I am going to do quite nicely. This musical has lasted in a different way to most, it is not performed as much, but it is as prevalent in the minds of some as perhaps Joseph is, or even The Lion King. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang took the wonder and excitement of musicals for children to a whole new level in the 60s, but if we take a closer look at the nuances, we can see some danger afoot. I stumbled across some interesting ideas when discussing the film 'intellectually' as a joke, and have come to realise that it doesn't take much to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a heavily layered musical with subtleties some of which need to be taken as warnings, others as socio-political commentary, and some as reasons not to let kids watch it without explaining some of the following points to them afterwards. 

To be clear, I'm taking the film musical (date) as canon here, and not anything else. 

One way of examining the film musical to the extent that is deemed necessary by...well me, would be to look at the characters. The protagonist, Caracatus Potts, is by both the standards of the time, and modern standards, an example of bad parenting. He means well, sure, but a passive rejection of formal education has led to a damaging outcome. In a scene midway through the film, the child catcher is looking in the cellar of the toymaker's workshop (who I'll come onto later), Potts, Truly and the children at this point pop out of boxes as jack-in-the-box's and stare at him dead in the face. Then, when he comes back a few scenes later, in his 'disguise' which consists of a colourful cape and some lollipops in his hand, the two children are instantly fooled. The simple rule 'don't talk to strangers' here is obviously broken. But there is ambiguity over the validity of that rule, so let's assume that's all fine. But are the writers seriously telling me that neither kid recognises the face of the child catcher? This is a result of lack of brain training, a distinct void of education has rendered their minds unused and unpracticed. That's one way of looking at the situation. The other is far worse. You might say, it's fine because that's not really happening, it's a story being told by their father. Well, now we encounter the worse of two evils. In this case, we see a father who thinks of his kids as being that stupid, and still refuses to discipline them or make them go to school. That may be much much worse.

Other than the lesson in bad parenting. There is more at play in the musical, such as the political significance of two important (possibly accidental) metaphors. There are two distinct incarnations of Capitalism, we have #1: Mr Coggins, who won't give them Chitty unless they can match the sum offered by a richer man, and there is symbol #2: the sweet factory and its owner, Mr Scrumptious. #1 is simpler, it relfects the growing power of greed and need for money over the slowly dying mutual care of humanity. Although the trick here is that we are made to accept it's not Coggins' fault that he needs the money. This forces us into a 'not much we can do' state of mind, which slowly chips away at our desire to make the system better. 

In the second, we have a symbol for modern corporate superpowers, who provide a service that is based on 'want' rather than necessity, and hence preys on its own customers by getting richer and richer, whilst the poorer are left to either work for them to make them richer still (which Potts does), or eventually die on the streets. But hey, at least they can rot their teeth before they go. In the end, Potts has made it in both Capitalist worlds, the material and the commercial, in other words he has become a part of the system. When he earned the money to buy Chitty, he did it honestly, through exceeding talent and entertainment. But when he gets his contract at the end of the film, it is an accident which propels him into a life with income and material goods, which of course will lead to materialistic needs. The message here is be lucky and you'll be fine. There's no need to work hard or go to school, just be generally a lucky guy and eventually they'll let you be part of the system so you can survive. But I ask you reader, at what cost? I'm not saying communism is better. I wouldn't, because it isn't. But it's important to be aware of these things because there's no reason to be afraid of centrism. 

On the face of it, that would appear to be where we lose track. But we haven't even started yet. Because symbol #2 gives us a critical bridge into another character-related aspect of the musical, with regards to the social and economic status of our female lead Truly Scrumptious. What we have here is a sweet factory CEO who is earning enough money to sustain his daughter (who remains a bachelorette, this would be an interesting feminist point if she didn't end up with Potts anyway), so that she can ride fancy cars, where fancy dresses and basically be pretty, sing songs about boys, tell other people they're doing parenting wrong (she's right but that's not the point); and all with no foreseeable threat to her financial security. In essence, Truly is here the aristocracy, the inheritor, she doesn't need to work and might not ever in her life. And yet at no point do we find ourselves thinking how troublesome that is. The musical bewitches us into thinking it's normal and fair and fine. But it isn't normal, it isn't fair and it most certainly isn't fine. The alternative of course is that she takes over the sweet factory herself when her father dies, which considering the feminist stance of this musical, probably wouldn't happen. Potts would probably take over. However if it did happen, she would know nothing else, her experiences and horizons would immediately be restricted, unless she goes international. Idea for a sequel alert!

Over in Vulgaria, the musical poses some interesting questions, whilst at the same time being utterly irritating to anyone who 'thinks too much about it'. We are presented with a royal family-centric society. "Every toy" the toymaker makes, he says, "is exclusively for his Highness the baron". So not only is this microcosmic national representation essentially a forced patriotic labour camp, but it is run by a man with the mind of a child. The fact that the physicality of the Baron conjures a certain president in my mind I of course refuse to let affect my prognosis, but still. 

It gets worse though, for what the script tries to make up for with a baroness who sounds Game of Thrones level ruthless (eyeballs for earrings and teeth for a necklace), it dashes instantly when we meet her. The baroness, when we take her under the context of it being Potts' story, would seem to be a representation of what he thinks women are like, or maybe just foreign women. She kicks her heels in the air, she squeals, she is pretty and blonde, she wears sensual clothing, and of course- she annoys the baron to the point of attempted murder. But it's played for comic effect, so it's fine? Well, once again, no, it's not fine. Because comedy or not, it sends out weird messages, messages that must be taken as warnings, and explained as such so that our social attitudes don't move backwards. You may ask: what evidence is there that we are moving backwards in this way? I would point to the Whitehouse. In any case, all of this, as well as the unsurprising fact that the musical doesn't pass the Bechdel test, I think would be enough evidence to say it doesn't do feminism any favours, no matter what wave we're up to. 

As an extension of my earlier point about being lucky, another message given out in this part of the film is this: nursery rhymes make everything ok, as well as convincing a bunch of trapped kids, who could have done all that stuff anyway, to do some stuff to free themselves. Look, we already know how stupid and foolish the baron is, why is Potts the only one able to realise the plan? - If only he were that ingenious on purpose more often. 

Finally, returning to the musical's central idea, the flying car, there appears on the face of things to be no harm done. But if we rearrange the lens we might view Chitty as a metaphor for the eternal battle: old Vs new. The film begins with the old, triumphant but not for long as it comes to a crash. It ends with the new, a flying car. There's little evidence to suggest that this was a purposeful metaphor. I understand that, but under a certain context the car could represent the 'millenial attitude' of being able to do anything- even fly- which we have been taught we can do but are increasingly finding out we might not be able to. It would be interesting social commentary if the musical extended the metaphor to explore the result of a generation being tricked into complacency. But it doesn't. What's more, that whole metaphor waves little respect because there's a huge lack of research to suggest any generation has ever been or will ever be any more complacent than any previous generation. So as an argument it has no footing. 

Now if you haven't already noticed: I'm exaggerating. I'm being partially satirical, I'm exploiting my English A Level for some light comic effect. But behind all of this there's an important message: musicals (or film musicals) such as this are important because they demonstrate not only how far we've come, but also how far there is still to go. It's not just the feminist criticism that is exposable anymore. There's the political significance of a nation controlled by the pursuit of power and money. There's the old Vs new complex. There's the significance of potentially damaging parenting issues which exist sometimes to a much worser extent today. Think about it. And watch Chitty again. Tell me I'm wrong.