The Bottom Line
Witch-in-training Angela Lansbury and three ragamuffin London refugees must save their small coastal town from a Nazi invasion with the help of a flim-flam artist, "substitutiary locomotion", and the songwriting skills of Richard and Robert Sherman.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks got its start waaaay back in 1964, while Walt Disney Pictures was still undergoing shooting on another foppish British comedy about a magical woman, Mary Poppins. However, Poppins author P.L. Travers was proving to be a real pain in Walt's side - she felt the movie made the series' title character "too sweet" and was considering filing suit to block the movie's release. In response, Disney bought the rights to Mary Norton's series about an apprentice witch named Eglantine Price who, with the help of three children exported from London during the air raids, had many delightful adventures. Disney even went so far as to have the Sherman brothers and producer Bill Walsh get together for a brainstorming session for the movie. In the end, Mary Poppins got the green light, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks was shelved for another day.
Fast forward seven years, and Disney was looking for another production. The Sherman brothers were still pitching hard for the story about the witch and the raids, and they finally got their wish. They tried to cast Julie Andrews for another witchy role, but she was unavailable; similar rejections came from Lynn Redgrave, Leslie Caron, and the lovely pixie Judy Carne before Disney "settled" on the ageless beauty Angela Lansbury.
The story is a simple one: Eglantine Price, a local homebody in a small unnamed coastal town, is unexpectedly burdened with three orphans from London - Paul, Charlie, and Carrie. This is much to her chagrin, as Eglantine has a secret: she is a witch ... well, an apprentice witch. When the kids catch her flying on her titular broomstick, she confesses, and then buys their silence by giving them the titular bedknob, which when placed on the bed allows its owner to travel anywhere they want to go.
Soon, news comes that Miss Price's final lesson from the London Correspondence College of Witchcraft will not be arriving. Peeved, Eglantine and Co. set out for London to meet Mr. Emelius Browne, head professor of the school. They are greatly disappointed when they discover Mr. Browne is a fraud, a sidewalk con man full of tricks that don't work (David Tomlinson is delightful as the rascal gentleman). With Emelius in tow, the group learns that the final spell is located on the mysterious island of Naboombu - rumored to be ruled by animals! With the help of the bedknob, they visit the island, in turn treating the audience to more live action-animation combination made popular in Mary Poppins. Finally they steal the spell from the lion king of Naboombu (after a rip-roaring game of football) and return to the coastal town.
The spell is revealed to be that of "substitutiary locomotion" ("Treguna Mekoites Tracorum Satis Dee", anyone?), a mysterious force which gives life to once-inanimate objects. When a practice Nazi invasion takes over the town, it's up to Eglantine, Emelius, and the three children to save the village!
When I was growing up in Germany, there was no English children's television, and so the only entertainment I got was through tapes sent to us by thoughtful relatives. One of those rare tapes included this movie, and I fell in love with it immediately.
Personally, I think this movie is better than Mary Poppins for one simple reason: this movie has an actual plot. Mary Poppins on the other hand is just a montage of stories and tales (lovely though they may be), but the songs in Bedknobs and Broomsticks do much to further the plot and explain the surrounding settings, whereas "Let's Go Fly A Kite" and "Feed The Birds" have a limited vocabulary in the realm of their movie.
Angela Lansbury shines - she was 45 years old when this film was made, and she is witty, charming, urbane, and lovely at all times. The children are also great for their roles, and Tomlinson is much better at playing a street cad than he was as the stodgy banker father in Poppins. The songs in this film are also magnificent - from the Oscar-nominated "Age of Not Believing" to the ever-so-catchy "Beautiful Briny", a throwaway from the Sherman brothers' Mary Poppins songwriting efforts. And, of course, the armor coming to life to chase the Germans out of the Channel (winning another Visual Effects oscar for the Disney team) is simply mindboggling to behold.
One thing I noticed while watching the recut 25th anniversary version recently is the large amount of mature subject matter in the movie: the bookman's henchman pulling a knife, the Nazi invasion, the whole idea of the air raids, all of it points to an awkward film. At 117 minutes (and 139 with the new additions) the film is also at the breaking point of the patient child's attention span. The movie itself was something of a flop on its initial theatrical release, due to its initial cut - premieres at Radio City Music Hall cannot exceed two hours.
Still, the movie is a magical treat and something of a lost classic in the modern Disney canon. The psychedelic bed-traveling sequences are a work of art, the extended dance sequence on "Portobello Road" is captivating, and Disney earns major bonus points for hiring an all-European cast and giving the film a distinctive English bent. As the tagline noted,
You'll beWITCHED! You'll beDAZZLED! You'll be swept into a world of enchantment BEYOND ANYTHING BEFORE!
Rating: 10 out of 10.
Ward Kimball (animation sequences)
Mary Norton (novel)
Angela Lansbury as Eglantine Price
David Tomlinson as Mr. Emelius Browne
Roddy McDowall as Mr. Jelk
Sam Jaffe as Bookman
John Ericson as Colonel Heller
Bruce Forsyth as Swinburne
Reginald Owen as General Sir Brian Teagler
Ian Weighill as Charlie Rawlins
Roy Snart as Paul Rawlins
Cindy O'Callaghan as Carrie Rawlins
Lennie Weinrib as Secretary Bird/Lion (voice)
Bob Holt as Mr. Codfish (voice)
Dal McKennon as The Bear (voice)
- My million or so viewings as a kid.