I discovered Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks when I was a kid watching the Disney Channel. In those days, the Disney Channel actually showed Disney movies – now it’s just a venue for badly acted tween sitcoms. I fell in love with Bedknobs and Broomsticks immediately – I was enchanted by the music by the Sherman brothers (Richard and Robert), and I decided that Angela Lansbury was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is very loosely based on Mary Norton’s children’s novels. Lansbury plays Eglantine Price, an apprentice witch who lives in a tiny English village during WWII. Three young orphans are evacuated from London because of the Blitz, and Miss Price is drafted as their guardian. The kids – Paul, Charlie and Carrie – view the spinster with wariness; she does the same. One night when making a break for it, they spot Miss Price trying out a magic broom. Initially bribing the amateur witch, instead the four come to an understanding and become friends, as they band together to complete Miss Price’s witch courses, so that she can help in the war effort.
Is it as far-fetched as it sounds - the fact that the folks involved to all this with a straight face is incredible. Bedknobs and Broomsticks is compared to the admittedly superior Mary Poppins because the two share many similarities – both feature magical British ladies in charge of English children; both films combine live-action with animation; both also feature some nifty songs by the Sherman brothers; both also feature Disney live-feature vet David Tomlinson. Still with all these commonalities, Mary Poppins is still the better film, though Bedknobs and Broomsticks deserves a second watching.
The film’s star is its strongest asset: Lansbury gets to show off her musical star chops by singing and dancing a storm, as well as, using her comedic timing. As the mail-order witch, she’s got a great role. Miss Price is initially prickly and forbidding and intimidatingly efficient. Early in the film, she delivers her lines in a superior, almost-snotty sniff. When asked her cat’s name, Miss Price replied, “I don’t believe in giving animals ridiculous names…I call him Cosmic Creeper because that’s the name he was given.” Her reserve with the Cockney tots thaw and they band together with Tomlinson’s Professor Emelius Browne, the fraudulent headmaster of Miss Price’s witch correspondence school. Though he’s a shyster, he’s undone at the fact that Miss Price is actually gifted. The kids join Miss Price and Prof. Browne on an adventure in getting the final piece of a puzzle that will allow for Miss Price to put together a magic spell she believes will help end the war.
It’s easy to see why some found this lacking when compared to Mary Poppins. The songs – save for the lovely “Age of Not Believing” – aren’t Sherman brothers at their best. Also, the premise of this bucolic English lady who is intent on fighting Nazis is a bit preposterous – also, like many kids movies set in WWII, the writers removed a lot of the sting from the German soldiers – instead of being scary or evil, they seem more menacing.
Still, there are some great moments. The best has to be the Portobello Road sequence, where the characters raid the famous street market to find a spell book. The musical number portrays a fantastic multiculturalism of London. Lansbury and Tomlinson also get to display formidable hoofing talents in the extended scene. Also good is the not-bad blending of cartoon and live action, when Miss Price and company magically appear in a fictional island of anthropomorphic animals from a children’s book. Because this film was made in 1971, the blending of live-action and animation isn’t seamless, but it’s still pretty well done.
Disney and Lansbury have done better work, and this is a minor classic in the Disney canon, but I highly recommend this underrated classic.