Not quite the valiant successor to Mary Poppins, although undeniably enchanting throughout most of its 142 minute running time, Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) reunites much of the creative brain trust behind Poppins' illustrious creative success for this warm and endearing story about an apprentice witch who desires to bring peace to a world on the brink of another war.
Based on the novel by Mary Norton (a precursor in many ways to J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter books), the film’s plot concerns Pepperidge Eye recluse, Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury). Eglantine has been involved in a correspondence college witchcraft program for several months. For the most part, her spells are harmless and temporary. However, the college’s graduation ‘bonus spell’ ‘Substitutiary Locomotion’ promises to bring inanimate objects to life. Tragically, Eglantine receives word that the college is closing down due to the pending conflict in Europe.
In the meantime, Eglantine is told by Mrs. Hobday (Tessie O’Shea) that she will be required by law to harbor three refugee children in her home; Carrie (Cindy O’Callaghan), Charles (Ian Weighill) and Paul Rawlins (Roy Snart) for an indefinite internment to protect them from Hitler’s bombing raids in London. At first, the association between the children and Eglantine is strained. However, after discovering that Eglantine is a witch, the children unite to help her search for the college’s head master, Prof. Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson) in the hopes of acquiring the bonus spell.
As they had done on Poppins, resident composers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman were assigned the task of writing songs for Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Importing a discarded number from the Poppins catalogue ‘The Beautiful Briny’ serves as one of Bedknobs’ highlights with other charmers including Portobello Road and Eglantine.
Unfortunately for the Shermans, the Christmas release of Bedknobs at Radio City Music Hall – with its yearly live stage show preceding every screening – necessitated the excision of most of their hard earned efforts, including two of Angela Lansbury’s best songs - ‘Nobody’s Problem’ and ‘A Step in the Right Direction’ left on the cutting room floor. Hence, when the film premiered it was missing crucial numbers that contributed to the overall empathy and development of the film’s characters – sequences already shot and edited into the finished release – then edited back out for time constraints.
In retrospect and in many ways, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a hand-me-down project rather than a genuine Disney original. Walt had put Poppins and Bedknobs into preproduction simultaneously – the acceptance of P.L. Travers for Disney to proceed on the former forcing Walt to shelve plans for the latter until much later – too late, in fact for Walt, who died in 1966.
The preliminary songs written by the Sherman’s in 1964 for Bedknobs – particularly Eglantine – did not meet with Disney’s approval and there is little to suggest that had he lived to produce Bedknobs himself, they would have survived the finished film. Nevertheless, the Sherman score does manage to capture much of that ‘dance hall’ flavor of the period.
The armor used in the film’s climactic storming of the English coast was actually designed for El Cid (1961) and had been reused for the filmic adaptation of Camelot (1967). Finally, there is something vaguely pedestrian about director Robert Stevenson’s handling of the material in totem – as though he is viewing it all in the shadow of, or, at the very least, in direct competition with Poppins. Again, these evaluations of the film by this critic are made, perhaps unfairly, in light of its historic record. In the final analysis, butchered continuity not withstanding, Bedknobs and Broomsticks was a rousing success at the box office.
Disney DVD has chosen to celebrate the 30th Anniversary with a refurbished and restored print – reinstating much of the excised footage lost in 1971. Unfortunately, Angela Lansbury’s superbly rendered ‘Step in the Right Direction’ remains a missing piece of the film – included as an audio supplement with still images accompanying. For the rest, the image quality throughout varies greatly.
Footage from the original ’71 release appears to have survived in relatively pristine condition with only minor, though nevertheless obvious, age related artifacts present. However, the reinstated sequences are a rather mixed lot. At times, and despite valiant restoration efforts, color fidelity suffers considerably – or at least obviously – distracting from the performance. The image can also appear quite ‘thick’ at times with a considerable amount of grain and loss of fine detail.
Overall, this isn’t a stellar presentation but it is passable given the circumstances. The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital repurposing of the original mono mix. It is strident in spots though the musical sequences benefit greatly from the efforts put forth by restoration expert, Scott McQueen. Extras include an odd ‘making of’ documentary that begins as a tribute to the Sherman Brothers, then haphazardly meanders into a Q&A with Angela Lansbury before becoming a featurette on how the film was restored. There’s also several trailers and a trivia and games section to indulge in.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)