Growing up, I know I watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks at least half a dozen times. It wasn’t a movie I associate with my early years, but rather one that came around during my early teens. Regardless of when I first saw the Disney creation, I couldn’t help but notice when I sat down to watch the new DVD edition of the film that I could barely remember a single song from the movie. It’s a picture I’ve seen quite a few times, but one that lacks a lot of the memorable Disney tunes, and magic, from that era of family filmmaking.
Featuring Angela Lansbury as an apprentice witch who inadvertently becomes responsible for the care of several young children, the comparisons between Bedknobs and Disney’s more successful movie Mary Poppins are hard to avoid. Lansbury’s witch, Miss Price, winds up taking the children on several fantastic trips, one of which drops them into an animated world where they interact with animals. All of this is done to the music of the Sherman Brothers, who also penned the songs for Mary Poppins. Oh, and actor David Tomlinson (who played Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins) is also along for the ride, this time in a more free-spirited role as the con-man/professor Emelius Browne.
While Bedknobs and Broomsticks certainly lives in the shadow of Mary Poppins, the movie’s biggest problems don’t deal with that long shade. The biggest problem is simply with Bedknobs’ story and use of music. The story feels pretty slim, with Miss Price getting the children, finding Professor Browne, and getting her hands on a desired spell a little too easily. The movie winds up getting fleshed out through the use of songs, but unlike the better Disney movies the songs interrupt the narrative flow instead of enhance it. This is particularly bad with the five-minute interruption of “Portabello Road,” a song that describes one of the locations the characters visit and then leads into a series of dance breakdowns in a variety of different styles. It’s a ridiculously long and needless break from the story and Disney is capable of so much better.
Despite the thin, padded out story, there’s still a lot to like about Bedknobs, just not to love like other Disney movies earn. The performances are enjoyable, especially Tomlinson’s, who gets a substantial change from his Marry Poppins part. The children are a little brattier than I expect from most Disney movies, but surprisingly that aids the story in a few places, particularly in giving motivation for the stand-out song, “The Age of Not Believing.” Beyond from the performances, the combination of animation and live-action, a frontier pioneered by Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks, continues to be strong for the short period it’s used here.
While Bedknobs and Broomsticks may lack the eternal substance of some of Disney’s catalog, there’s still a part of the movie that has stayed with me, and I suppose that’s where the movie’s magic lies. For younger, less discriminating viewers, particularly ones who won’t compare the movie to Mary Poppins, there’s an entertaining story here. As an older viewer, I can see the movie’s flaws, but I still found myself tapping along with the long-forgotten musical numbers and waiting for the moment that Miss Price and company find themselves facing off against invading Nazis, with only a little witchcraft as their defense. That’s the magic of classic Disney pictures – even the weaker offerings are worth watching repeatedly.
On the Disc:
The new “Enchanted Musical Edition” release of Bedknobs and Broomsticks contains mostly material we’ve seen before. In fact, at least one of the bonus features refers to cut material from the movie being restored for “this Anniversary edition.” The problem is that Anniversary was in 2001, when the movie had a 30th Anniversary DVD release. As such, a lot of the materials from that edition are repeated here, including a look at the music from the Sherman Brothers and a reconstruction of the previously deleted song, “A Step in the Right Direction.”
The one new featurette that has been added features current Disney phenom Jennifer Stone from Wizards of Waverly Place looking at how special effects were created in the days of Bedknobs compared to how they are made on today’s Wizards television series. Although it’s primarily an excuse to get another Disney star in front of the camera (a staple of all new Disney releases), it’s actually pretty informative, although as a special effects fan I would like to have seen it go more in depth than the surface level approach taken here.
The bonus materials are rounded out by the theatrical trailer for the movie and a one-minute look at David Tomlinson recording audio for the “Portabello Road” number – a look that’s so brief it’s almost not worth pressing play on.
Yet again, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is overshadowed by the superior Mary Poppins, which has had two awesome anniversary editions, loaded with a look behind the scenes of making the movie. Considering the era Bedknobs was made in – a project that was started by Walt Disney but not realized until after his death – I’m sure there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to making this film. The Sherman Brothers even hint at that in the “Music Magic” part of the disc. Unfortunately, it’s something we still haven’t gotten to hear about, two DVD editions later. Maybe in a few years, when the film turns 40…
- Rafe Telsch