Set during World War II, Angela Lansbury stars as Eglantine Price, a quiet woman secretly training to be a witch. Her professor is the mysterious Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson), who offers mail-in enrollment in his witchcraft university. Her plan is to use the skills she's learned to help the war effort, but her initial contribution turns out to be providing a home for three orphans named Charlie (Ian Weghill), Paul (Roy Snart) and Carrie (Cindy O'Callaghan). On their first night staying with Ms. Price, they spot her attempting to fly on her broom for the first time, and when a letter comes with the news that Browne's witchcraft course is coming to a premature end, she uses a traveling spell to take the trio with her to London to track the man down.
Ultimately, the movie is a mixed bag. At 140 minutes, there are parts of the movie that go on too long (like the dancing after the song "Portobello Road"), and some of the overwhelmingly English dialogue is too complicated for its own good, but there's also plenty to like. Lansbury's performance is easily the best part of the whole movie. Her Ms. Price is perhaps one of the nicest witches ever written, and she's got just the right blend of prim unflappability and goofy eccentricity to go with her overwhelming kindness. She also gets a couple of good songs, including "The Age of Not Believing" and "Substitutiary Locomotion". Lansbury is the glue that holds the movie together, and she does so in a gentle way that genuinely elevates it. Tomlinson's songs aren't as inspired, but "Portobello Road" is good before it runs off track.
The visual effects are fun. Even now, the sight of inanimate objects coming to life is convincing: you could guess how it's done, but you wouldn't know for sure if you were right. There is also a large chunk of the movie where the live-action heroes end up in an animated world, complete with yet another musical number (so-so) and a lively soccer game. The sequence is pretty funny and the animation is nice, although the reused chunks become obvious as the match continues.
One of the things I didn't realize when I was younger that seems glaringly obvious now is that Bedknobs and Broomsticks was directed by Robert Stevenson, who also directed Mary Poppins. Along for the ride are Poppins screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and songwriters Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Watching it now, I can't help but notice that "Locomotion" sounds awfully similar to "A Spoonful of Sugar" mashed with "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (and I learn the studio both reused a song that never made it into Poppins and even tried to cast Julie Andrews) and consider the way the film strains to get in that animated trip to Naboombu and subsequent soccer game. Since Poppins is another film I haven't seen in at least fifteen years, I can't say how much an overall detraction it would be, but even to me it's as clear as day.
Things I can say are a detraction start with the complete lack of romantic chemistry between Lansbury and co-star Tomlinson. Both of them give good performances and they have a friendly rivalry, but it's really hard to believe that these two have feelings for one another. A couple of jokes Browne's jokes are also sexist (both of which boil down to "Women are disorganized!"), and his lesser numbers are a slog ("Elgantine" is, frankly, not very good). The three child actors fall in the middle of the road, although there are some flat notes here and there. The weirdest moment in the movie combines all of the above and wraps it in a cliché. I've never bought the idea that kids would actually vocalize that someone (much less someone who, for all intents and purposes, is a stranger) is the father figure they've been looking for, but the kids actually cry when Browne thinks about leaving. I mean, I've also never had divorced or dead parents, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but the whole scenario is especially awkward.
The other thing that seems weird to me is the depiction of the Nazis. I had no problem with Quentin Tarantino using history on his own terms, but it doesn't feel as right in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I mean, even twenty years after the end of the war, I can definitely understand how the Nazis make for an easy villain, but this being a Disney film, their evil is vaguely defined. The details are there: the movie opens with someone painting out the signposts so enemy spies can't identify the towns, and the children discuss other guardians being killed by enemy bombs. When the Nazi troops show up, they come armed with real bullets and cut the phone lines. It's never exactly harrowing or even dark, but it still seems, I don't know, wrong that after al of that they turn into wacky comedy Nazis who get clonked on the head, kicked in the butt and pinned to trees by walking suits of armor. As far as I'm concerned, you can't have it both ways. Either the Nazis are your no-explanation-needed, extremely sinister villain, or you have silly goofball hijinks.
One movie later and I remain undecided about the nostalgic factor. I can't decide how much trouble I'd have had scraping through the rough patches of Bedknobs and Broomsticks without my childhood memories egging me on, but I feel like Lansbury would have seen me through. Ten years on, and I'm still not at the age of not believing. No, I opt to be skeptical, but even going in fearing the worst, this fitfully charming film manages to squeak through.
The Video and Audio
A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is alright, coming to life during the movie's numerous songs, but sounding kind of flat otherwise. Directional effects are limited. I doubt it will make anyone jump out of their seats, but it works as well as can be expected given the age of the film. English, French and Spanish subtitles are included, along with a 5.1 French track.
Next, a deleted scene of sorts called "'A Step in the Right Direction' Reconstruction" (3:48) patches together a cut scene using photographs. It's another musical number with Angela Lansbury, and it's okay, although within the film, it'd probably be another bit dragging the running time down. Similarly, there is a short clip entitled "David Tomlinson 'Portobello Road' Recording Session" (1:10) that gives the audience a good look at Tomlinson off-set, but not much else.
The disc is rounded out by a gallery of four extremely awesome original theatrical trailers (3:43, 1:33, 2:22 and 1:39) and a weird promo called "Dylan and Cole Sprouse Blu-Ray is Cool!" (4:45), which outlines the format for dummies. Not quite as strained as the featurette, but still pretty strained. Trailers for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on Blu-Ray, The Princess and the Frog and the still-awful-looking Santa Buddies play before the main menu. Additional trailers for Disney Blu-Ray, Disney Movie Rewards, Up, Like Stars on Earth (practically miniaturized non-anamorphic video windowboxed in an anamorphic frame), Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure and the D23 online Disney fan community can be found under Sneak Peeks on the main menu. The bonus features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish.