The people who made “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” must suffer from Jan Brady Syndrome—the second child who’s forever in the shadow of an older sibling.
In the case of this 1971 Disney blend of live action and animation, the elder sister is “Mary Poppins,” which played in theaters seven years earlier and was as big of an event as Hollywood had seen. “Mary Poppins” received 13 Oscar nominations and won for Best Actress, Best Editing, Best Song, Best Score, and Best Special Visual Effects. Meanwhile, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” earned five nominations and only won for Best Special Visual Effects.
There’s no solace to be taken in the source materials, either, because P.L. Travers published the first of eight Mary Poppins books in 1934, while Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks were published in 1943 and 1945. Same with the box office. “Bedknobs” reportedly cost $20 million to make and only returned $17.9 on the investment; “Mary Poppins” cost $6 million to make and grossed $102.3 million.
It probably didn’t help that Disney used some of the same film crew to make “Bedknobs,” including the same director (Robert Stevenson), art director (Peter Ellenshaw), music director (Irwin Kostal), and songwriters (Dick and Bob Sherman). There’s even some cast crossover, with David Tomlinson (Mr. Banks in “Mary Poppins”) playing the male lead in “Bedknobs”—a sidekick role to a magical lady that viewers recognized as the “Burt figure” Dick Van Dyke played in “Mary Poppins.” Nor does it make “Bedknobs” stand out as unique in any way when the setting is once again London, children are taken on an adventure by an older woman not their mother, they witness (and participate in) extended dance sequences, and they visit a cartoon world.
Julie Andrews was even considered for the role of witch Eglantine Price, which would have made this live-action/animation blend feel like a “Mary Poppins” sequel. Instead, the studio opted for Angela Lansbury (“Murder, She Wrote”).
Still, there are far too many echoes of “Mary Poppins” and other Disney animated features in this musical-comedy-adventure to review it WITHOUT making comparisons.
“Poppins” had the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” song, and the Sherman brothers give “Bedknobs” another language song: “Substitutiary Locomotion.” The lion king this group encounters in the animated land of Naboombu (where a soccer match takes the place of the horse race) looks remarkably like Prince John from Disney’s “Robin Hood,” and other characters will evoke similar memories.
The point is, “Bedknobs” feels unoriginal, and it suffers from comparison. If you could somehow block out those points of comparison and evaluate it on its own, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” probably falls closer to the 7 out of 10 range; with comparisons, it’s more of a 6, in part because the blend of animation and live action seemed less charming and seamless than we saw in “Mary Poppins.”
Where “Bedknobs” stands out is in the sequences that aren’t so similar to other films. The first and third acts are plenty entertaining, as Charlie, Carrie and Paul Rawlins (Ian Weighill, Cindy O’Callaghan, Roy Snart) are part of the London children evacuated to the countryside during the German blitz. They settle in with a woman named Eglantine Price (Lansbury), whom we soon discover is learning to become a witch. Her goals are lofty: she wants to use magic to end World War II. But she still has much to learn. She has a problem with animal transformations and broomstick flight, for example. When her correspondent school of witchcraft closes, she travels to London with the children on a magic bed, only to discover that the school’s headmaster (Tomlinson) is really a con artist who came up with the scam course after finding an old spellbook in the Portobello Road marketplace, where the film’s most impressive song and dance sequence takes place. But he only has half the book, which accounts for why some of the spells are failing, so they go to the marketplace hoping to find the other half.
All of that has an entertaining vibrancy that starts to dissipate when familiarity settles in and the second act travels and song and dance routines start to feel so similar to those in “Mary Poppins.” But the interest picks up again in the third act, when a small Nazi raiding party puts ashore from a submarine with the goal of causing panic in the British countryside. Not to nitpick, but why, when they occupy Eglantine Price’s house, would the Nazis tell her it’s not really an invasion, that it’s only one landing to induce panic? That clumsy exposition aside, the third act battle between a witch-in-training and this group of Nazis is fun enough. In fact, so is the entire film, if you can just stop associating it with that darned older sibling.
My daughter saw “Mary Poppins” first but preferred “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” as a nine year old. Now, as a ‘tween, she loves “Mary Poppins” but isn’t crazy about “Bedknobs.” That tells me this film might have the most appeal for families with young children.
“Bedknobs and Broomsticks” is rated G and clocks in at 117 minutes.
Disney is releasing five titles on August 12, and to the average viewer “Bedknobs” will seem like the roughest visual presentation. There’s considerable grain in many sequences, and some aliasing on some of the darker shots. Modulating the look of animation and live action is a tough job, and Disney made it look easier with “Mary Poppins.” The effects here can seem a little jarring at times. But skin tones are faithful to the original, and colors, though deliberately drabber prior to the excursion into animation, seem well-hued enough. “Bedknobs” is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and suffers, at times, from the cramped space.
Once again Disney went with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional audio options in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish. At times, because the sound is so centralized, the audio sounds closer to mono, but then the effects speakers kick in and you’re reminded of the 5.1 mix.
There are a few bonus features here, but not as many as you’d think. Included here is “Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers,” which also turns up on the “Mary Poppins” release, along with five deleted songs (including “A Step in the Right Direction,” presented with a series of photographic stills) and eight deleted/extended scenes. Also included is a Tomlinson recording session, a brief bonus feature on “The Wizards of Special Effects,” trailers, Disney Song Selection, and a Sing Along option.
It’s Disney, it has magic in it, but for me it would be a stretch to call “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” magical. Hollywood has a name for when studios try to capture lightning in a bottle twice. It’s called a “sequel,” and at times “Bedknobs” feels like one. That said, this film has a dedicated bunch of fans who will be tickled to get it on Blu-ray, finally, and nostalgia is a powerful draw. If you loved this movie as a child or young adult, you’ll love it even more in HD.