Congratulations to Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks, not just for making it to the half-century mark, but for having a tone of oddball whimsy that feels just as weird today as it probably did in 1971. Witchcraft, orphans, Nazis, dance routines, animated animals, Angela Lansbury? Just a few of its extraordinary ingredients.
You’d be forgiven for mixing up Bedknobs and Broomsticks with Mary Poppins. Both are Disney musicals adapted from books by female British authors (Mary Norton in this case) and were directed by Robert Stevenson. Both stories focus on feisty children and their magical caregivers and feature songs by the Sherman Brothers and sequences that mix live-action and animation. Both films also star mustachioed charmer David Tomlinson. But Mary Poppins, which came out in 1964 and won a bajillion Oscars (including Best Actress for Julie Andrews, in her feature debut), has lingered in the culture longer for a variety of reasons. The songs are catcher, the story is more accessible, and in recent years there’s been a sequel, a making-of dramedy, and even a much-loved reference in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks — which was written by Bill Walsh Don DaGradi and released in December of 1971 in the U.S. — has been subject to remake rumours over the years and apparently has a stage musical in the works, but it’s never gotten that same sort of nostalgic love. Now that it’s hanging out on Disney+, it may broaden its audience, especially since it’s marking such a major milestone this year. But if you watched it as a kid, just know that it’s way weirder than you might remember. And if you’ve never seen it, well, surprise — there are Nazis!
The Nazi content bookends the story, which is set in 1940, and also provides its motivation, since eccentric protagonist Eglantine Price (Lansbury, who is perfect) decides to become a witch specifically to assist the British war effort. She’s less than enthused about another World War II-adjacent service she’s asked to provide, housing orphans who’ve fled the Blitz in London, but she agrees to do it anyway. That’s how she meets the scrappy Rawlins siblings: Charlie (Ian Weighhill), Carrie (Cindy O’Callaghan), and Paul (Roy Snart).
The kids soon discover her secret and have big plans to blackmail her, so she imbues a bedknob with a spell that allows the kids’ bed to magically zip around. In London, where they’ve gone to track down the incantation Miss Price needs to put her anti-Nazi plan into play, they meet Professor Emelius Browne (Tomlinson), a chipper con man who’s sort of a Wizard of Oz type. He admits he mostly made up the spells for Miss Price’s witchcraft correspondence course and is shocked to see how well they work — especially the one she uses to turn him into a white rabbit on multiple occasions.
While Bedknobs and Broomsticks didn’t rack up as much acclaim as Mary Poppins, it did pick up an Oscar for visual effects, and you can appreciate why. There’s some creative use of lights and camera effects (reminiscent of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which also came out in 1971) to show the wondrous bed in flight; there’s also that notable animated/live-action sequence set on the Isle of Naboombu, where Prof. Browne and Miss Price dance “underwater” in a fish nightclub and Browne referees a soccer match between animals who all look like prototypes for Disney’s Robin Hood (which came out in 1973). In the movie’s big climax, the entire contents of a war museum, including dozens of suits of armour, are enchanted so they can help hold off a swarm of Nazi invaders. Though the effects are obviously outdated by today’s standards, they fit the story perfectly; by the time Bedknobs and Broomsticks gets to that third-act battle, it seems perfectly acceptable that a bunch of disembodied uniforms from several eras would come to life and kick some very confused Nazi butts.
Those bizarre, dare we say trippy, details are what make Bedknobs and Broomsticks more than just standard kiddie fantasy fare. The quirky stuff also allows you to forgive some of the movie’s more frustrating aspects — like the way everyone shrugs off the fact that the group goes all the way to Naboombu to steal a medallion inscribed with the words Miss Price needs for spell, only to see the medallion evaporate as soon as they return to the “real world,” and then further shrugs off the fact that they could have just gotten the words out of the Naboombu picture book Paul’s been carrying around the entire time. It’s pressed-for-time storytelling in a movie that somehow creates ample room for an international dance showcase when the gang visits the Portobello Road flea market. It makes no sense, though it feels like it should — kind of like Miss Price’s cranky black cat, Cosmic Creepers, who skulks around hissing at everyone but ends up having as much impact on the plot as Angela Lansbury’s Twiggy-style eyelashes.
Like Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks ends when the family bonds are sufficiently strengthened, though in this case, the orphans find their permanent home with Miss Price, who — having saved her coastal village by leading the charge on her flying broomstick, as you do — is happy to put her witchcraft days behind her; she doesn’t really have a choice, since her workshop was leveled by Nazis. Considering the movie takes place in 1940, you kind of wonder why she didn’t return to casting spells as World War II dragged on, especially with her new flame Prof. Browne serving in the Home Guard — and maybe she did? The door is left wide open for a sequel that’s yet to materialise, and probably never will. It’s hard to imagine a Mary Poppins Returns-style rehash that could ever fully capture the vintage, off-kilter spirit that propels Bedknobs and Broomsticks from start to finish.