BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS – DVD review

I can’t help but wonder what the reception might have been for “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” if it were made seven years after the end of WWII rather than seven years after “Mary Poppins,” another Disney live-action/animation blend. If the superior “Mary Poppins” were removed from the equation, would “Bedknobs” still seem as gently flawed as it does now?

Curiously, youngsters who were born after 1964 and had to wait to see “Mary Poppins” on video have a different opinion. People like Jennifer Stone (“Wizards of Waverly Place”), who narrates a bonus feature on the film’s special effects, grew up with “Bedknobs” and they like it as much as the generation that embraced “Mary Poppins.” Maybe it depends on which you see first, because the two films are similar in so many ways.

Both “Mary Poppins” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” are directed by Robert Stevenson, with music provided by the Sherman brothers. Both involve a mysterious, magical woman who comes into the life of children whose lives need a little magic–ignored children growing up in a strict, bland Victorian household in the case of “Mary Poppins,” and three war orphans sent away from London during the German Blitz. Both the magical nanny Mary and apprentice witch Miss Price (Angela Lansbury) take their charges on a trip to an animated land with an older male companion. Mary has chimneysweep Bert, while Miss Price has the sham head of her correspondence school for witches, Emelius–played by David Tomlinson, who coincidentally was the children’s father in “Mary Poppins.” Mary’s magic helps the group enter one of Bert’s sidewalk chalk paintings, and they go to a fair. Meanwhile, it’s a spell from an old book of magic and a bed with a knob that’s tapped and turned that transports the “Bedknobs” cast to the cartoon world of a children’s book, “The Lost Isle of Naboombu.” And both films are overindulgent in providing interactive live-action/animated sequences that go on a little too long.

If you watch “Bedknobs” with “Mary Poppins” in mind, even the songs start to take on the same character. “A Step in the Right Direction” (included only as a bonus feature on this release) is sung by Lansbury and sounds suspiciously similar to “A Spoonful of Sugar.” It even comes at the same point in the film. Bert sings about his occupation (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”), and so does Emelius (“With Flair”) in musically similar tunes. When you hear Tomlinson sing “Portobello Road,” you get intonations and strains of “Feed the Birds,” just as another song is reminiscent of “Sister Suffragette” and another a word song is a lot like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” So why didn’t I list the names of the similar songs from “Bedknobs”? Because they’re forgettable. What’s more, early in the film there are so many recitatives (sung dialogue) that “Bedknobs” starts to feel like an operetta. Maybe it would have been better had the Sherman brothers not attempted something similar, because song for song these feel like pale copies. The brothers won Oscars for Best Score and Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”) the first time around, and “Mary Poppins” won five Oscars overall–the number of Academy Award nominations that “Bedknobs” received. Like “Mary Poppins,” “Bedknobs” won for Best Effects, but that’s all.

Still, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” is solid family entertainment. My main criticisms, really, are that alongside “Mary Poppins” it feels less original and accomplished, and that the film goes on about 20 minutes too long. At roughly 140 minutes, “Bedknobs” asks a lot of audiences–especially when we really don’t get to the meat of the plot (the plan to foil Nazi invaders) until the one-hour and 40-minute mark. We were a little more forgiving of the meandering digressions in “Mary Poppins” because the whole plot was just Mary teaching the kids how to enjoy life, and the lessons could come from anywhere. But here, we’re told that Miss Price wanted to become a witch because she wants to do her part for the war effort. She wants to use witchcraft to defeat the Germans, and in war people are being killed every day. So it’s a little more discomforting to watch Miss Price and Emelius dance and frolic with animated fish at an undersea café when in the real world there’s so much urgency. And I do think that too much burden is placed on Lansbury and Tomlinson to handle most of the songs, when one doesn’t have a singer’s voice and the other is really a character actor.

On the plus side, the effects really are special, and they still hold up all these years later. There’s humor aplenty, the songs aren’t bad (just not memorable), the acting is competent, and the children exhibit more personality than the ones from “Mary Poppins.” Visually, “Bedknobs” holds your attention, as does the plot. Miss Price is at first reluctant to take in the children, but then they blackmail her when they see her trying to fly on a broom for the first time. From that point on, they’re partners who go in search of Emelius, which leads them away from a prying priest (Roddy McDowall) and toward the clutches of a Booman (Sam Jaffe) and his henchman who want the half of the magic book that Miss Price has. She, of course, wants the other half. But it all leads them to an amulet that coincidentally turns up in that animated land of Naboombu. And the Nazi invasion isn’t as far-fetched or far off as it first seemed, because the inevitable confrontation finally takes place.

I’d probably be inclined to give this a 6, but I recognize that another generation thinks more highly of it. So does my seven-year-old daughter, who saw “Mary Poppins” first but still prefers this film. Maybe, if the nostalgia factor is removed, adults can appreciate “Mary Poppins” more than “Bedknobs,” and that’s the thing that separates the two films.

Video:
When “Bedknobs” was first released on DVD it was shown at 117 minutes, but even the 139-minute restored version and this Enchanted Musical Edition are lacking the song “A Step in the Right Direction.” They just don’t have the footage. Elsewhere, you’ll notice little quick jumps that indicate a missing frame (no doubt damaged beyond repair) or a few flickers of dirt that are normally not present on Disney releases, so clearly “Bedknobs” had deteriorated badly since it was released back in 1971. I can’t make comparisons to the earlier restored edition, but I can say that apart from the noticeable things I mentioned, the picture quality is very good. Colors are vivid except when the palette is intentionally drab, and there’s a good amount of detail in night scenes and shadows for a standard-def release. “Bedknobs” is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio and “enhanced” for 16×9 televisions. Given the shape this film must have been in, the picture looks really nice.

Audio:
The audio is an English or French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, but it’s a front-heavy soundtrack. The rear speakers get involved not nearly as much as I would have expected. The audio is more functional than it is impressive. Subtitles are in French and Spanish.

Extras:
There’s not much in the way of bonus features. Stone walks us through a comparison of special effects then (sodium screen vapor process) and now (green screen and CGI effects), and it’s enough to make you appreciate the inventiveness of filmmakers on both ends. “A Step in the Right Direction” explains that there’s no surviving film of the song, and so the audio is accompanied by a sequence of photographic stills showing Lansbury with the broom as a prop. “Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers” is a repeat bonus feature that’s turned up on other DVDs (yep, “Poppins”), and the only other film-specific bonus feature is a very brief clip showing Tomlinson in the recording studio singing a chorus of “Portobello Road.” Other than that, there are some Disney trailers, and the DVD is rigged for FastPlay so little ones can pop it in and not have to worry about navigation. The single disc is housed in a keep case with cardboard slipcase.

Bottom Line:
As I said, if “Mary Poppins” didn’t exist, I wonder whether I’d be more impressed by “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” It’s a pleasant-enough G-rated film for family movie night, but parents be warned. While my seven-year-old girl loved the film, my 11-year-old boy thought it dull and “kinda stupid.” I fall somewhere in between them in my own assessment of the film. It’s Disney, and it has magic in it, but for me it’s a stretch to call the film “magical.”

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