I think one of the oddest things about the reboot craze is the determination to blur fantasy and reality. I absolutely understand the need to make things like the Beast from Beauty and the Beast look like he is a two-ton behemoth, feeling the weight of his fur, and imagining the power of his breath alone. Moviemaking has always strove to bridge that gap to varying degrees. But there are numerous examples in the pre-CGI era where filmmakers had two options: either go hard on makeup, costumes, set design, effects, and risk the phoniness…or challenge the actors and animators by having animated characters be drawn in later. One has the potential of looking realistic, but also has the most to lose if they fail. Once you see a zipper seam or a shirked budget, the suspension of disbelief shatters and you look stupid. With real people mingling with cartoons, it’s definitely cornier, but it’s FAR easier to draw a talking dog than it is to make one not look like a puppet or that they made the dog eat peanut butter.
There’s a lot of great films that put real humans in cartoons and vice versa. The Three Caballeros. Fantasia. Song of the South. Mary Poppins. Pete’s Dragon. Space Jam. Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Cool World. It’s a novelty that’s been around around since Max Fleischer cavorted with Koko the Klown back in the twenties. While this effect can be severely hit or miss, often depending on whether the actor can keep their sight line focused or interact with something that isn’t there, it carries with it its own charm and uniqueness that is impossible to replicate with computer graphics, I don’t care how cutting edge the software is or how good the graphic designers are.
If you’ve ever seen 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, you probably recall the central conflict was centered around Mrs. Pamela Travers’ unwillingness to let a charming huckster like Walt Disney bastardize her books with whimsy and fluff. That part is completely true, and Travers was as every bit as contentious as the movie made her out to be. And Walt, a man used to getting things done his way by the early sixties, was having a heck of a time trying to get Mary Poppins done. However, Walt devised a contingency plan: adapting another British book about a magic woman going on wild adventures with children. The Magic Bedknob by Mary Norton had these ingredients, and Walt set his Mary Poppins staff; writers Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman, and director Bill Stevenson to create – essentially – a knock-off version of Mary Poppins.
As we all know, Travers eventually relented and we got the Oscar-winning film we know and love today. Walt didn’t want to bother with their plan B movie, mostly due to his innate desire to not repeat himself. Years later, after Walt’s death, the studio was so desperate to keep the magic of Walt going, it was decided to look up the old project and try to see if it would have the same effect as Mary Poppins did. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was released in 1971, five years after Walt Disney’s death and garnered only mild success. Did it deserve it?
The original film was released with a runtime of 141 minutes, but had to be cut to 118 to allow runtime under two hours. Disney later tried to rerelease it in its fully restored glory in 1996, but the footage of the song “A Step in the Right Direction” was lost, so the restored version wound up being 139 minutes. The version on Disney+ is the shortest yet at 117 minutes. Now, because I had the 2001 DVD that had the semi-restored length, and I want to be as thorough as possible, that’s the version I’m going to analyze. So strap in, because let’s begin brewing on bouncing beds beneath the beautiful briny with Bedknobs and Broomsticks!
The plot: Three precocious orphans Carrie (Cindy O’Callaghan), Charlie (Ian Weighill), and Paul (Roy Snart) are refugees from Nazi Germany’s bombing of London, and are forced to the seaside town of Pepperinge Eye with the eccentric Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury). However, the kids soon discover something odd about her: primarily that she’s an apprentice witch learning spells through a correspondence course.
When the courses stop abruptly, right before she learns of a spell she wants to use to help save England from the war, Eglantine and the kids hop aboard an enchanted bed to find her teacher, Emilius Browne (David Thomlinson). However, Browne is just a shyster who made up half the spells and stopped the course because the spellbook he based his lessons off was severed in half. The group sets off to find the “substitutiary locomotion” spell – which makes inanimate objects come to life – by any means necessary to save Mother England from the Nazis.
How’s the writing?: I’ve seen lots of movies that meander. You know what I mean, movies like Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, or The Jungle Book, where the characters have one goal, and while a good chunk of the movie feels like it derails a lot, you don’t really care all that much because you’re having fun with them. Then there’s movies like So Dear to My Heart, which wanders like a drunken fly, where it loses sight of its point and you just want the film to get to the smooing point already. Bedknobs and Broomsticks…lies smack dab in the middle of those two.
On one hand, I never really resent the journey I’m taking with these characters. Eglantine’s goal is simple: to get the last spell to help England win the war. She does get waylaid a lot, though. She goes to Mr. Browne, who doesn’t have the other half. They go to Portobello Road to get it, but they get caught up in the dancing. They find the man who has the other half, but it doesn’t have the spell. They go to Naboombu to find the artifact that has the spell, but they short-shoot it and fall in the lagoon. They make it to land, but the king won’t give it up and is surly about missing his football tournament. They get the star, but it evaporates as soon as they get back home…only to find the spell is literally in a book Paul held onto since step two. I should be mad at this movie because it wasted so much of my time for a result so moot and pointless…but I’m not. When Jeremiah and Tildy meander through the countryside chasing a bee in So Dear to My Heart, I get annoyed because the movie wants me to relax and enjoy the experience, despite that we know there is a greater goal. In these various sidequests, the sense of urgency is rarely lost. You may be forced to watch people dance in the “Portobello Road” sequence, or you may be forced to watch cartoon animal slapstick during their football game, but there are minute moments here or there to show us the movie hasn’t forgotten what they’re supposed to be doing. Eglantine is still feverishly digging through mountains of books, and Emilius is constantly trying to reach for the king’s star.
Still, the movie takes its time in everything it does. There are ten songs in the restored version, and few really do anything to further the story. There’s a bridge during “Portobello Road” that goes on forever that should be fun and captivating, considering it’s a bunch of various cultures dancing, but that’s all it is: dancing. I don’t mind a well-choreographed scene, but if the point of a scene is just to appreciate people dancing, especially if the movie wants me to remember there’s a serious matter at hand, then I’m sorry, it’s not going to hold my attention.
Does it give the feels?: Yes and no. It does because it generates some good, sincere development between the characters, particularly Emilius and Eglantine. And no because it’s not particularly strong with the kids.
The movie sets up the idea that Eglantine starts off as an independent woman, fully committed to her studies in witchcraft and completely uninterested in romantic pursuits and child-rearing. Like a Hallmark movie, the narrative wants to peel her away from this mindset and have her give up her studies, and look after the kids and play the domestic housewife role. Of course, it takes a while to get there, so you’re mostly forgiven for not seeing that. But by the end, she decides not to relinquish the children to another caretaker, bid farewell to Browne, who’s marching off to war with the Old Home Guard, and has completely given up on her witchcraft practice. Not for any valid reason, mind you, but because poisoned dragon’s liver made her feel icky. Considering it’s never established dragons exist and Browne was a con man, doesn’t that mean it most likely wasn’t poisoned dragon’s liver?…
I do like the scene where Browne uncomfortably insists he has to leave, despite the protestations of the kids, mostly because you can read Browne’s expressions as a man generally used to being detached and on the move. The inclusion of “Nobody’s Problems for Me” is about Eglantine somberly singing about how lonely it can be without kids or a loved one, if a bit on the nose.
But the kids…man, the kids are a massively conflicting element. I don’t dislike them, really. But Carrie doesn’t contribute much, Charlie is bratty, and Paul is pretty much phoning it in. The kids are necessary to the plot and aren’t terrible as characters, but they are tough to stomach sometimes.
Who makes it worth it?: I’m hard-pressed to really think of a standout performance that sold me. Thomlinson as Browne is entertaining in many scenes, though I still prefer his hammy performance in The Love Bug more. I would like Eglantine a bit more if she weren’t so fussy and constantly perturbed.
The one character I enjoyed watching most was King Leonidas. An anthropomorphic lion whose greatest passion is football (“Soccer” to us uncultured Americans), and is generally jovial and boisterous, sometimes unaware he can come off as a bit brash. His roars and bellows are exaggerated greatly (But the wind effect from them is not great) and show he is well aware of its full power. But you get the feeling despite his abrasiveness and his ego, he’s a friendly guy who’s happy to host…as long as your homo sapien butt is visiting, not living on, Naboombu. I just wish I knew why they made him sound like a pirate.
I should also throw credit to the fishing bear. He’s barely in the movie save for one scene, but he’s kind of a loveable oaf. I would not have minded more screen time from him.
Best quality provided: The soccer match, as I said, is completely pointless to the plot, but boy, is it a fun scene to watch. If you like watching traditional anthropomorphized animal slapstick vis-a-vis Looney Tunes, you’ll definitely get a kick out of this.
What could have been improved: Like I said, this movie can get tedious if you’re not prepared for over two hours of runtime. Some scenes and bits are entertaining on their own, but even with all that extra time to spare…still go nowhere significant.
First example, we meet the Old Home Guard, a small infantry of elderly British soldiers who make it their mission to protect Pepperinge Eye, mere minutes into the film. The idea is amusing, and they even get their own song. However, they don’t appear again until after Eglantine does all the heavy lifting by chasing away the Nazis, and the men fire a few potshots, thinking they saved England, and later Browne joins them as the end credits roll!
The famous Roddy McDowall appears as a rather unlikable priest, Mr. Jelk, who is sorry he cannot join the war effort because of his
bone spurs quinsy, and frequently displays his desire to marry Miss Price…for her house. He appears later to both test the house’s physical sturdiness and get harrassed by Eglantine’s test run of the substitutiary locomotion spell…and not only is that the last we see of him, but Eglantine barely acknowledges his presence at all!
But as I cited earlier, the one scene that exhausts me most is the “Portobello Road” dancing scene. Good dancing scenes for me are okay at best, because there’s only so much enjoyment I can derive from watching a bunch of people…well, dancing. And it goes on…for over six and a half minutes! As dancers from various cultures take time to show off their moves, you’re well aware it has nothing to do with the plot, nor even the establishment of Portobello Road as a sort of shady flea market. Tomlinson finishes singing the song, only to strike it up all over again to spawn a multicultural street party with nothing really interesting happening.
Maybe if the song had more to do with making Portobello Road a sprawling, lively, bustling stretch, where everyone tries to outdo their neighbor in selling their wares, this’d be kind of interesting. Maybe if the background didn’t look like a bunch of dour, dirty, gray streets. Maybe if we didn’t have bizarre little moments like after a Scotsman finishes his dance, Paul blankly states, “Missed me” to him. I don’t know, dancing scenes tend do bore me enough as it is. But what I do know is something like “Step in Time” in Mary Poppins is similarly long and similarly pointless, but there’s no doubt it’s frenzied, kinetic, joyous, and thrilling. For me, it’s the worst part of the movie, and I’m happy to just skip through it.
Verdict: Bedknobs and Broomsticks is far from a bad movie. It just has the desire to cram in everything all at once in a feverish attempt to recapture lightning in the bottle that was Mary Poppins, and as a result, doesn’t really seem to know what it’s doing. A valiant effort, to be sure. And like I said, there’s a lot of good stuff here that shouldn’t get overlooked. It’s definitely worth your time to check out. Six Stars of Astoroth out of ten.
It is the age to start believing.