Bedknobs and Broomsticks
This is the 26th film we’ve watched in our marathon Disney animation festival, and the first one I hadn’t already seen. It will be 23 more until we reach another I haven’t seen: Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
It was based on two books by Mary Norton—The Magic Bedknob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons, and Bonfires and Broomsticks—and as usual the Disney organization took what they wanted and changed what they wanted. It is the story of Eglantine Price, an “apprentice witch” (Angela Lansbury) who is taking magic lessons via mail, and three children evacuated from London to the countryside during World War II. Some of her spells work, and some don’t, and some are simply forgotten because her memory is bad. She manages to enchant a bedknob such that the bed will take them anywhere they want to go. They travel to London, where the meet Professor Emelius Brown (David Tomlinson), the man who had been selling Eglantine her lessons, and find out he is a street illusionist and con man, then to the Isle of Naboombu, where animals talk. Later, they foil a small raiding party of Nazis who come ashore from a submarine. The major changes are that in the book the island was inhabited by cannibals, and there were no Nazis.
This movie has a rather sad history. It was to be a major deal, like Mary Poppins, but for some reason was shortened from two and a half hours to just under two hours. Three songs were cut, a sub-plot with Roddy McDowall was eliminated, and the biggest (and by far the best) musical number, “Portobello Road,” was shortened by six minutes. Then, in 1997, Disney decided to reconstruct as much as they could of the original movie, and that version is available on DVD.
I considered renting that DVD, but I decided I didn’t like it enough to see the whole thing again, plus half an hour. It might have been better with Julie Andrews, who was considered for the starring role. But as it is, the movie lacks heart and any sense of danger. I didn’t like the kids, especially the smart-ass oldest one. The animated part on the island is not very well done. Most of it concerns a soccer match, and some parts of it reminded me of Hanna-Barbera television shows, where Yogi Bear or Fred Flintstone run in place over an endless, repeating background. Knockabout farce and little else. The Nazi part feels added on, as it indeed was, though the battle between the Germans and the magically-animated empty suits of armor are the most arresting visual images, and probably looked even better in 1971. The journeys on the magic bed are psychedelic light shows that aren’t very interesting, though if you look closely you will see some solarized landscapes very much like those at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is surely where the filmmakers stole them.