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Bedknobs and Broomsticks

***
1971

‘…an unusual slice of big-budget, high concept fantasy…’

Robert Stevenson’s 1971 Disney melange of live-action and animation has always lived in the shadow of Mary Poppins, which used to same formula to much more iconic effect. It’s understandable; the cast, good as it is, isn’t an upgrade on Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke, and the Sherman Brothers songs are rather less tuneful and ingenious that last time around. That said, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is still a very engaging product, and today’s lack of familiarity with the source material, two books by Mary Norton, makes this an unusual slice of big-budget, high concept fantasy.

Disney had optioned this before landing the rights to Mary Poppins, and the scenario is rather similar. We open with a cartoonish version of the Bayeux tapestry, and a military song to establish the film’s bona fides in terms of celebrating the empire and the establishment. This is the story of three children evacuated during the WWII blitz; headed for the countryside, they seek shelter with Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury), who is secretly a witch.

Having shown the kiddies how their bed can be transformed into a flying transportation with just a stiff turn on the bed-knobs, the team pick up showman Professor Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson) and venture into a underwater kingdom and an animals’ football match, both animated. Returning to Dorset, they find the Germans invasion in full swing, and manage to awaken several generations of military spirits to help them defend their homeland…

These were more innocent times. ‘What’s all this got to do with my knob?’ exclaims the blonde boy, to which Lansbury lustily replies ‘I need that knob!’ But the sense of music-hall sexiness that infuses the Mary Poppins of Andrews and Blunt is missing here, and Lansbury and Tomlinson somehow don’t strike sparks as a couple. There’s a mildly racist knees-up dance number (Portobello Road) and some variable but often impressive special-effects; that’s one aspect in which Bedknobs improves on Poppins.

Kids should still lap up the old fashioned cheerful shenanigans here, even if it’s hardly a compelling story well told; this is more like a music-hall or variety bill, with the animated acts leading up to the final slapstick climax. Mary Poppins is a classic, sure, but Bedknobs and Broomsticks is the can-do kid brother that offers just enough of the same charm to help the medicine go down.

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  1. This was still the Disney Golden Age after The Jungle Book put animation back on top. Aristocats was pretty good, too. It would be 1989 before there was anything as accomplished – Little Mermaid. If we’d known that we might have made more of Bedknobs. I enjoyed it at the time. Too grown-up – 17 or 18 9 at the time (we grew up fast in those days) – to admit how much I enjoyed it.

  2. It was a rather peculiar movie, as were her earlier books The Magical Bedknob or How to Be a Witch in 10 Easy Steps. I was upset after reading the book and learning nothing! Emelius wasn’t helpful either. Norton (author), per her byline, was a mother of 4 with a husband away fighting wars and needed income, ergo she awkwardly plotted some stories. Her Borrowers series did much better. Lansbury portrayed the books character quite well–but the animation was rather boring, special effects nice. Excellent assessment slap stick/music hall…

    • If it was really easy, we’d all be doing it. All part of Disney’s drive to promote witchcraft to toddlers. Did not remember the name, but yes, The Borrowers is probably more fondly remembered. Really dig the cat in this one, no idea how it was achieved, but it looks fake and real at the same time!

      • The thing is, why was Disney trying to go for the British thing? It had been 7 years since Mary Poppins. I guess I just don’t know what my country was thinking at that time (not being born is a big hindrance to knowing what’s going on I have found)

        • I guess someone thought that what people loved about Mary Poppins was the Britishness, but I can’t see it myself…

          • Yeah, after throwing off the shackles of tyranny we come crawling back time and again it seems.
            You see it in the news cycles with the Royals. Even though, that seems to be fading as the Queen keeps on hanging on. I even wonder if Charles will be a “king”.

            Any idea how long Lansbury had been acting by this point? She seems like an institution to me now….

            • Well, she was in Gaslight in 1944, so she was a veteran by 71.

              I’m always amazed that the Royals are part of the US news cycle. It’s 24/7 here…

              • You know what it is? I’m familiar with her from the Murder, She Wrote tv series, which was in the 80’s (mainly) but since I didn’t watch it until later didn’t associate it with the 80’s.

                I guess the urge to adulate on royalty is in our genes…

  3. My only memory of this was having a Bedknobs and Broomsticks jigsaw puzzle when I was a kid. I remember doing it many times. Even after several of the pieces went missing. Don’t think I ever saw the movie.

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