“Filigree, apogee, pedigree, perigee!” Our Halloween tribute to all things witchy goes Disney with a look at Bedknobs and Broomsticks. In the wake of Mary Poppins several Poppins copycats were greenlit. United Artists tried their hand four years after Poppins, losing Andrews but retaining Dick Van Dyke, with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Disney was at a loss by the 1970s with how to capitalize on the success, both financially and critically, after Poppins author P.L. Travers infamously refused to sign away the rights to later novels, so they turned to author Mary Norton and her apprentice witch, Eglantine Price. The finished product certainly feels like A Mary Poppins Halloween, with little differentiating Price and Poppins, but Angela Lansbury, David Tomlinson (taking center stage after his phenomenal supporting turn in Poppins), and the music of the Sherman Brothers does a lot towards taking an aimless series of events and turning them into wholesome family fun.
In the midst of WWII, three children are evacuated to the home of Eglantine Price (Lansbury), a woman whose training as a witch leaves her little time to care for kids. When her sorcery correspondence course is canceled, Eglantine and the children travel via bed to visit Dr. Emelius Brown (Tomlinson) and get the missing component for Eglantine to graduate as a full witch.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks marks the end of an era for Disney live action films. It was the last film the Sherman brothers would create the music for (they’d return for The Tigger Movie in 2000); the last Disney film nominated for an Oscar until The Little Mermaid in 1989; and it was the final film overseen by Roy Disney, Walt’s brother. With everything coming to an end a lot was riding on this film, and it’s easy to see it as the culmination of a time period of creativity…while resting on what had worked so well before.
Compared to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a movie whose popularity I don’t get, Bedknobs and Broomsticks has great songs and a fun story, albeit a very scattered one. The introduction of the children and Eglantine acts as a subversion of the Poppins formula; Eglantine isn’t a fan of the children, but remains that staunch, dominant, “practically perfect” character. Really, Eglantine’s only flaw is she’s an apprentice witch and the only spell she masters is turning people into rabbits. The set-up between these two disparate groups is fun, although it’s never explained where the parents of these children are (it’s presumed they’re dead), and the movie doesn’t find it important enough to make us care for these children. Are they traumatized victims of war? Who knows!
The Sound of Music must have been fresh in their minds, another famous musical starring Andrews and set during WWII. Where Sound of Music acknowledged the war as a serious event, without getting too downtrodden, Bedknobs and Broomsticks turns into farce by the third act when the Nazis wander into the film and get their butts kicked by an army of armor led by Eglantine. Wackiness is the prevalent tone in the movie, but the introduction of the Nazis at the end lacks any true suspense other than they’re Nazis. The movie plays on 1970s audience knowledge of Nazis as the villains and thinks there’s no other reason to root for Eglantine. I’m not saying we need to watch the children wallow in their grief, but context would be nice.
That brings me to the biggest problem Bedknobs and Broomsticks suffers from: a lack of plot. I enjoy the first half of this film: Eglantine’s learning witchcraft and how to raise children, the introduction of Emelius Brown and his brief flirtation with Miss. Price. The best songs are also frontloaded into the film’s first half hour: “Portobello Road,” “The Age of Not Believing,” and “Eglantine” are the best of the lot. Several songs, including “The Beautiful Briny Sea” were cast-offs from Poppins and it’s easy to hear shades of “Chim-Chim-Cheree” in songs like “Portobello Road.” After that the movie meanders under the loose reminder of Eglantine looking for the final component in the “Substituary Locomotion” spell she needs to be a full-fledged witch. With that small piece of information the movie wanders into an animated sequence involving an island of talking animals who play soccer, and ultimately staring down the Nazis in a big showdown. There’s not much momentum in the second and third acts because most of its reliant on the animation, pushing the human characters into the background. The third act contains some fun moments but the children’s relationship to Eglantine isn’t strengthened and then the movie ends. Director Robert Stevenson helmed several Disney features including Poppins and The Love Bug, two other movies that suffer from pacing issues. Poppins, for all its merit, is too long, and at almost two-hours the same pacing issues plague Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Julie Andrews originally refused the part of Eglantine, finally coming around after Lansbury had signed. The role wouldn’t have stretched Andrews any further than Poppins, and after the disastrous work of Sally Ann Howes in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Lansbury retains the English authoritarianism without outright imitating Andrews. Lansbury plays Eglantine Price as a woman who needs to be won over, whether it’s the children earning her love or her earning the ability to practice witchcraft. She’s hardier than Andrews, unafraid to have her hair out-of-place. David Tomlinson works well next to her; his zaniness tempered by her formality.
This is as much Tomlinson’s picture as it is Lansbury’s. He’s the unsung character actor of Disney live-action film. Tomlinson moves away from the staid Mr. Banks and is just as believable as the frivolous Emelius Brown. He continues to work well with child actors, and can pull off acting alongside animated characters during the soccer match on the Island of Naboombu. The three child stars are also well-cast, although they all rock the “‘ello guvnor” accent. Imagine if Dick Van Dyke’s Bert was shrunk down and put in triplicate; Ian Weighill as Charlie plays the kid with a chip on his shoulder, transforming into a pleasant child for reasons never explained, Cindy O’Callaghan is darling as Carrie, and Roy Snart steals the show as little Paul, the youngest who can never seem to keep a rabbit.
For all Bedknobs and Broomsticks issues with storytelling and pacing, the frivolity of the story is never diminished. The vignette technique never pulls together like Mary Poppins, and there’s far too many similarities to that earlier work recycled here, but Lansbury and Tomlinson create a somewhat different animal. It’s a very fun romp through the wild and wacky world of witchcraft, so jump on the bed and let’s go!
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