“England. August in the year 1940. Again – A time for valor. A time of whispered events, now faded with the passing years.”
In 1971 what had not faded in the 7 years since its release was the enormous success of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins. With its charming story and characters and the breakthrough special effects that the studio had developed, the film was a milestone for the entire film industry. I suppose it isn’t too surprising that the folks at Disney would want to try to recapture that success all over again.
It’s the days of the Blitzkrieg in the beginning of World War I. England lives in constant fear of an iminent attack from Nazi Germany. As the attack becomes more and more likely, an effort is made to evacuate women and children from London for their protection in the event of a bombing. Citizens with extra room in sturdy houses outside the city are being asked to take in as many orphan children as they can. One such person is Miss Price (Lansbury) who lives alone in a large well built house in a remote part of England. She’s none too keen on taking in the three siblings she’s assigned: Carrie, Paul, and Charlie (O’Callaghan, Snart, Weighil). She needs her privacy. She has been taking a witch’s correspondence course to sharpen her magical skills. She believes that the course will allow her to do something that could end the war and save England. But when she receives notification that the school has closed down, she decides to take the children to London to find Professor Emelius (Tomlinson) to get her hands on that necessary final lesson. How will they get there, you might ask. By way of a bed powered by an enchanted bedknob that will transport its occupants anywhere it is commanded. The bed works, but the professor is somewhat of a disappointment. He’s a failed and clumsy magician whose ambitions exceed his abilities. He closed down the course because he didn’t have the promised final lesson. It was removed from a book he had copied the previous lessons and spells from. In fact, he’s totally surprised that Miss Price has managed to make the spells actually work. Now together they all use the magical bed to try and find the missing incantation which will create something called Substitutionary Locomotion, or the ability to make inanimate objects animated. If they can find the spell in time they just might repel an invasion by the Germans.
While a sequel to Mary Poppins had once been discussed, another avenue was taken. Disney assembled many of the same talents that went into Mary Poppins for the Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The famous Sherman Brothers were brought in to provide the songs. Who else would you get? The two had not only written the endearing and enduring songs from Poppins, but other Disney favorites which included Winnie The Pooh and The Jungle Book. There was every reason to believe they would manage to create even more timeless songs. Bill Walsh would be tapped to produce and write the screenplay, duties he also performed on Poppins. The story would be adapted from a popular children’s novel, just as Mary Poppins had been, this time penned by Mary Norton. The actor who played the children’s father in Poppins would also be hired for a critical part in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
The similarities didn’t end with the staff. There would be plenty of parallels between the two properties. Both would feature a female lead character with magical abilities who would come to the aid of children in need of her. The stories were both very British and took place in close proximity of time. Both of these magical ladies would have an exotic friend who was somehow tied to their magical abilities. While the stories themselves would differ considerably, you just can’t escape the myriad of commonalities. Both films would incorporate Disney’s own new technology to blend live action and animated characters and settings into a seamless composite film. Even the songs would very much mirror many of those wonderful songs in Mary Poppins. There is a song called Portabello Road that is hauntingly reminiscent of Chim Chiminey. Both films open with a song and dance about a corp of fighters. As we watched Bedknobs, it was an almost irresistible game to try and match the song we were hearing now with its corollary on Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, these songs end up as pale imitations that never really exhibit the magic that the Sherman Boys have accomplished so many times before.
This version of the film is an extended one. There are about 22 minutes added to the original theatrical running time of 117 minutes. It’s far too much in almost every case. The aforementioned Portabello Road song and dance appears to drag on forever. It takes up nearly 20 minutes of screen time. It’s a lot to ask for anyone’s attention, and I simply can’t believe it could hold a child’s attention for half that time. The trip into the animated world appears to be there only as an excuse for an animated scene. The events end up being entirely irrelevant to the story. Whatever pacing problems the film suffered originally are only exacerbated here.
The cast is fine, but let’s face it, Angela Lansbury can’t hold a candle to Julie Andrews. And while David Tomlinson is actually pretty entertaining as the misguided magician, he will always pale in comparison to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert. The children’s accents were entirely too heavy, likely making it more difficult for American children to relate as much as was necessary here. Roddy McDowell has an awkward but rather funny small part as the town’s parson. Sam Jaffe is brilliant as a book dealer who might have the missing elements of the spell. I would really have liked to see more of him. He’s very reminiscent of the crazy old coot in Poppins who has laughed himself onto the ceiling. And in the end that’s really the problem here. You simply can’t watch this film without being reminded of Mary Poppins. By the time you’re finished you’ll realize you could have very easily just watched that film to begin with.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The picture looks pretty good in spots. The colorful animation segments look the best overall. The live action material looks a bit soft most of the time. The film tends to be rather dark, and black levels look a little below average. There is a lot of material on a single disc here, and it results in some rather obvious compression artifact.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a great job of not being overdone. Ambients are kept to pretty much musical numbers and the occasional subtle sound. You can opt for the original theatrical version if you’re a purist, but for me this updated audio is a great compromise between the old and the new.
The Wizards Of Special Effects: (8:07) Jennifer Stone from Disney’s The Wizards Of Waverly hosts this look at the process used on this movie and compares it to the greenscreen work used on her show. It’s fluff, really.
Music Magic: Half of the great brother team, Richard, looks at the composition of the songs on the film. It’s a great 18 minutes with a musical genius.
A Step In The Right Direction: (3:48) The deleted song is presented through stills of the missing footage and Lansbury’s singing performance. Not a stellar song at all. I can see why it was deleted.
Portobello Road Recording Session: (1:10) David Tomlinson from the original recording session of the film’s song with a conductor guiding his performance.
While the film just doesn’t hold a candle to Mary Poppins and never achieved the success or timelessness of that film, it’s not without some charm of its own. In fact, it might have been far better had the studio and the filmmakers not tried so hard to imitate the earlier film. It causes it all to ring hollow somehow. Imitation might be the greatest form of flattery, but it doesn’t always equal as good a film. If that were true, any number of Disney’s timeless classics would have been cloned a hundred times by now. It’s easy really. “All you need is 20 years practice and a touch of genius.”