[18 August 2014]
Disney’s 1971 feature film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, is a classic of the time period. Set in England in August 1940, the movie is understandably very focused on World War II and its effects throughout the country, particularly a small village Pepperinge Eye. Based on a series of children’s books by Mary Norton, the film begins when Miss Price (Angela Lansbury) is forced to take in three displaced orphans. She is reluctant to do so primarily because she is training to be a witch and all her time is devoted to her studies.
The children, Charlie (Ian Weighill), Carrie (Cindy O’Callaghan), and Paul (Roy Snart), immediately plot to run away, but quickly discover Miss Price’s secret. What follows is a hilarious attempt to blackmail her by Charlie that backfires fairly quickly, but is important as a setup for his cynical nature. As Miss Price is still only an apprentice witch, her spells are often short-lived and just slightly off of their intended purpose. Regardless, she’s still able to do magic from the spells sent to her from the Emelius Brown Correspondence College of Witchcraft. When she receives a letter telling her that the college is closing before she’s able to complete her training, Miss Price decides to travel to London in order to get her final spells from Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson) himself.
The trip to London is completed through magic, of course, as a bedknob spirits them away in a psychedelically inspired sequence. When Miss Price and children finally meet Mr. Browne, he admits that his spells were nonsense, taken from a fragment of a book he found and then altered for a more theatrical effect. When he realizes that Miss Price is actually able to perform these spells, the search begins to find the rest of the book, and in turn, the five of them take off to the first of many adventures. Their search leads to a series of sequences involving animation woven into the live action film, as well as a huge dance number, a battle with Nazis, and the continuing love affair between Miss Price and Mr. Browne and Miss Price and the children, respectively.
The animated sequence set underwater is terrific, as it marries Disney’s numerous strengths seamlessly. The song sung in the scene, “The Beautiful Briny”, is a standout, but combined with Miss Price and Mr. Browne’s underwater dance, it’s a highlight of the film. Another wonderful scene is the Portobello Road number that originally clocked in at ten minutes, but was shortened for theatrical release to four minutes. The entire scene has been restored and is a beautifully choreographed sequence of dances performed by the various ethnic groups in England at the time.
Though it is impossible to not compare Bedknobs and Brooomsticks to 1964’s Mary Poppins, particularly as it relates to the animation and the songs used, it would be a disservice to the film to write it off as a lesser version for several reasons. The quality of the performances by Lansbury, Tomlinson, and the child actors is superb. Lansbury is able to bring humor and warmth to Miss Price, while Tomlinson plays the role of jester with a depth that makes the chemistry between the two a pleasure to watch. In addition, Weighill, O’Callaghan, and Snart are sweet, funny, and integral to the story.
Apart from the performances, the songs by The Sherman Brothers are the classic Disney pieces that both anchor and carry scenes. One of the best special features included in the Blu-ray release offers a great deal of backstory to the songs used and cut, for reasons of length, and cement their importance in the film. In addition, the special effects, for which the film won an Academy Award, are skillful and well executed to the point where, for the most part, they still hold up today. There is a clever sequence in which an army of disembodied knights goes up against the Nazis and as they’re being attacked by machine gun fire, one knight removes his helmet and shakes it to remove all the used rounds, while another removes his leg for the same reason. It’s a funny and effective way to highlight the visual effects, as well as take them to someplace beyond flying and magic disappearances.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks brings together humor, song, dance, and magic to tell a wholly original story. The performances are always engaging, and their charm cannot be overstated. In the end the film is entertaining and fun, while also maintaining an emotional component throughout, making it a classic Disney film rightfully getting its due in this restored master.
As mentioned above, the bonus features included in this release are excellent. They consist of several featurettes and deleted scenes and songs. They’re an essential addition to the film in that they offer context for its original story, the ways in which it was altered for theatrical release, and how it was restored. Lansbury’s interview in Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers featurette is particularly delightful, as she provides more backstory and sings snippets of songs cut.