Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bedknobs and Broomsticks - 1971

When Mary Poppins was in preproduction, Walt Disney put everything on hold while he waited for P.L. Travers to finalize the film rights. Fearing that they wouldn't get the rights, Walt had a backup plan. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was a book by Mary Norton he purchased in case Travers held out. He assigned the same story team and the Sherman Brothers to adapt it into a film. However, they didn't get too far before finding themselves back to work on Poppins.

After Walt passed away, the studio began to work on many projects that Walt either didn't get to or had passed up. Yearning to recapture the success of Mary Poppins, the Sherman Brothers found themselves back at the studio to finish Bedknobs and Broomsticks. One of the new songs written was "The Age of Not Believing," which was inspired by the brothers' doubtful feelings of pulling off the picture without Walt. In addition to the songs written specifically for this film, they also recycled a deleted song from Mary Poppins called "The Beautiful Briny Sea." The same story team from Poppins returned to finish the script, Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi. However, the studio forced an animated soccer match into the script that they objected to, which was written by Ralph Wright and Ted Berman.

Robert Stevenson, who directed Mary Poppins, directed this film as well. Ward Kimball directed the animated sequences. Julie Andrews was the first choice to play the lead, but she turned it down. Angela Lansbury, who was originally considered to play Poppins, was cast instead. David Tomlinson from Mary Poppins was cast opposite her. Roddy McDowell is another familiar Disney face, having appeared in That Darn Cat and The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin. Production took place mostly at the Disney Studio in Burbank. Exterior sets were built on the backlot while the sound stages were filled with the massive Portobello Road set. A few shots required a second unit to travel to England. When production wrapped, the film was over two hours long, which caused most movie theaters to refuse to show it. Roadshow musicals were quickly falling out of favor by 1971 and Radio City Music Hall wanted to book the film, but needed it shortened to include their Christmas stage show on the same program. Twenty-five minutes of the film were cut for its original theatrical release.

The film opens with a tapestry-inspired credit sequence. Eglantine Price is an apprentice witch who is forced to take three children into her care during World War II. After the kids see her flying on a broomstick at night, they threaten to reveal her secret to improve their living conditions. Instead she compromises, enchanting a bedknob to take them wherever they want. Their first stop is to find Professor Brown in an attempt to get the final spell from her correspondence course. It turns out the professor only had half of the book. They track down the other half in Portobello Road, but find that the most important page is missing. In a daring escape from a thug, they flee to the island of Naboombu, which is inhabited entirely by animals bewitched to behave like humans. King Leo on the island has the final spell Eglantine has been waiting for, which she uses to enchant an army of empty armor to scare the nazis out of England.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks had its world premier on October 7th, 1971 in London. It debuted in theaters on December 13th, 1971. Critics were mixed on it, most comparing it to Poppins. It made $17 million at the box office, but cost an estimated $20 million to make. However, the studio decided to rerelease it in 1979, although they edited it further to just 98 minutes. It made its home video debut in 1980. In 1996, the studio attempted to restore the film to its original length. The footage for one musical number ("A Step in the Right Direction") couldn't be found and some audio elements had to redubbed because the original audio elements were destroyed.

It would be impossible to top Mary Poppins and Disney learned this the hard way with Bedknobs and Broomsticks. However, it's still a very enjoyable film. The Sherman songs are mostly great, but none of them tug at the heart the same way "Feed the Birds" does. Angela Lansbury is marvelous here as well and was nominated at the Golden Globes for her performance. Like Poppins before it, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences nominated the film for a slew of awards, including Best Song ("The Age of Not Believing"), Best Costume Design, Best Score and Best Art Direction. It took home the award for Best Visual Effects. Comparing the theatrical cut to the extended version, I actually feel the theatrical cut makes for a better film. It has much better pacing and doesn't lose any major plot elements.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks is currently available on Blu-Ray in widescreen (1.66:1 instead of the correct 1.75:1). The film looks amazing in high definition and is presented in its original theatrical cut (117 minutes). The deleted scenes and songs are available as bonus features. However, if you want to see the extended version that was restored in 1996, you'll have to buy the "Enchanted Musical Edition" DVD (the DVD included with the Blu-Ray is the theatrical cut and loses most bonus features). The same restoration found on the Blu-Ray is available digitally on iTunes, which also includes all of the bonus features.

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