A funny thing happened to Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks on the way to its 1971 general theatrical release. Clocking in at over two hours and thirty minutes, the roadshow version of the title (offered for special engagements) was considered too long. Company executives, concerned that the film’s target audience - children - would find some of the slower, more somber material boring, demanded it be cut. So out went three songs, an extended dance sequence, and a few minor subplots. As a result, the film many of us grew up with (and loved) is not the work director Robert Stevenson intended. The man behind Mary Poppins, as well as many other House of Mouse classics, saw his vision undermined for the sake of business concerns.
Thankfully, DVD reintroduced the original cut - or as close to it as possible - in 2001 (it had turned up on laserdisc in 1997). As part of a 30th Anniversary package, Disney included as much of the found footage as possible, though the sequence “A Step in the Right Direction” remained lost. Fans quibbled a bit, unhappy with the dubbing of some sequences, noting that some of the replacement voices did not match the original actors very well. But overall, they were ecstatic to see the film restored. Now, eight years later, Disney is releasing what they call an “enchanted musical edition” of the film, boasting a new “Wizards of Special Effects” featurette. However, aside from this minor bit of added content, nothing else is new. It doesn’t mean the movie’s not worth your attention. It’s a gem. The double dip, however, is another question.
Set during the earlier days of World War II, Bedknobs and Broomsticks centers on three London orphans - Charlie, Carrie, and Paul - who are sent to the UK countryside to avoid the ongoing bombing in the city. There, they meet up with Miss Eglantine Price, a spinster who dabbles in witchcraft. When her secret life is discovered, she gives the children a magical bedknob that allows the piece of furniture to travel anywhere they want. As part of her apprenticeship, Miss Price wants a spell for “substitutiary locomotion” (the ability for inanimate objects to move on their own). She and the children take the bed and head to Portobello Road where they look up Professor Emelius Browne. He informs them that the information they need is on the magical island of Naboombu.
Taking the bed to the strange locale, the group meets up with the animated animals who live there, including the egomaniacal King Leonidas. Wearing the Star of Astoroth, which holds the secret to substitutiary locomotion, His Majesty demands Mr. Browne referee the annual football game. Using the match as a ploy, our heroes steal the talisman and head home. Sadly, the Germans have landed and have set up shop in Miss Price’s small town. Desperate to battle the enemy, the spell is invoked. Suddenly, all the old armor in the museum comes to life, taking up positions along the coast to give the invading Nazis a run for their money.
As part of their desire to match Mary Poppins success both critically and commercially, Disney hit pay dirt with Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It is just as good as it’s 1964 predecessor, and contains some of the best work - visually and musically - of any of their films. Far better than Pete’s Dragon and more in tune with the company’s cine-magical approach, this beautifully rendered fairy tale has aged magnificently. In fact, the wartime setting gives the narrative a bit of gravitas that other House of Mouse efforts lack, and no one could top stars Angela Landsbury and David Tomlinson in selling a song. Together with some fantastic animated sequences and Oscar winning special effects, this is perhaps the last great live action movie ever to come from the dream factory built by Uncle Walt.
Part of the reason Bedknobs and Broomsticks works so well is the return of composers Richard and Robert Sherman to the fold. Having left the company in the mid ‘60s, the talented songwriting brothers would return from time to time to freelance. But this effort was different. In the bonus features, we learn that Poppins wasn’t always a “go”. Author P.L. Travers held back on the rights to her classic character up until the very last minute, unconvinced that Disney could do her character justice. As part of a backup plan, Walt asked the Shermans to tackle a treatment he had of The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks, both by Mary Norton. When Travers eventually acquiesced, work on the new material was halted. As a result, we get some of the boys’ best work, a musical score that, like Poppins and their work outside Disney, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, truly stands the test of time.
The F/X also deserve a mention, since Bedknobs represents the House of Mouse as the early ‘70s standard bearer in that regard. The Island of Naboombu scenes, including the introductory number in the lagoon, surpass Poppins in the combination of live action and animation. The sodium light/optical printer set-up developed by Ub Iwerks works flawlessly, marrying the actors to the cartoon backdrops effortlessly. Even better, the last act attack, complete with animated chainmail and other armaments of battle, is expertly realized. Sure, some of the tricks look obvious by more modern standards, but the truth remains that the Disney artists outdid themselves here. Everything they had learned on Poppins, as well as other past attempts to marry the fantastical with the factual, is evident.
Last but certainly not least, the acting has to be mentioned. The House of Mouse had a very keen sense of child star potential, and Ian Weighill, Cindy O’Callaghan, and Roy Snart are flawless in their roles as displaced casualties of the Blitz. Not too worldly wise, but surely smart enough, they give polished performers Landsbury and Tomlinson a run for their money. As our main leads, one couldn’t ask for a more perfectly matched pair. As Miss Price, Landsbury provides just the right amount of youthful naiveté to match her aging façade, while Tomlinson gets a lot of laughs from his stiff upper lip vs. slapstick situation. With a script that never talks down to the audience and Stevenson’s steady direction (he remains an unfairly underrated filmmaker), Bedknobs stands as a testament to the effectiveness of Disney’s designs in the years after Walt’s death. It deserves to be considered a classic.
And for the most part, it is. Granted, it doesn’t have the instant recognizability of Poppins, or the prolonged classicism of the company’s animated features, but it definitely remains a stellar entertainment and artistic achievement. Whether or not you need this new DVD will all depend on your love of The Wizards of Waverly Place (a young actress from the series, Jennifer Stone, introduces the new seven minute-plus piece) and if you missed out on the previous 30th anniversary release. Just remember - this is not the Bedknobs and Broomsticks you grew up with. It’s not the version you saw in theaters, in the 1979 reissue, or numerous broadcast television or cable premieres. In many ways, it’s a lot, lot better. More importantly, however, it’s still one of Disney all time greats.