Loosely based on the novel by Mary Norton, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) followed up Disney's enormous success with Mary Poppins (1964), and on paper the two pictures must look very similar. Here we have two musical comedies set in England, both involving magic and a handful of cute but troublesome children, both combining live action and animation, and both directed by Robert Stevenson and starring David Tomlinson. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, however, differentiates itself from the earlier film by replacing its spoonful of sugar with equal parts vinegar and poisoned dragon's liver, and the result is a more nuanced, less treacly story that offers a thoughtful treatment of its adult characters while still delivering plenty of entertainment for the kids.
Angela Lansbury stars as independent spinster Eglantine Price, who reluctantly takes in three orphaned children evacuated from London because of the Blitz. Carrie, Paul, and Charlie (Cindy O'Callaghan, Roy Snart, and Ian Weighill) soon discover that Miss Price is secretly training to become a witch in order to fight the Nazis with her magic, but her correspondence course in witchcraft comes to an abrupt end. Determined to finish the lessons, Miss Price and the children travel to London using an enchanted bedknob, where they meet "Professor" Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson), who turns out to be nothing but a former stage magician and con man. Nevertheless, they enlist Browne's assistance and embark on a series of adventures to learn the rest of the spells needed to repel a Nazi invasion.
Lansbury and Tomlinson really shine in their roles. Both of the successful character actors are here solidly middle-aged and an unlikely pair for a romance, but they balance the humor and pathos of their characters beautifully. Their musical numbers are lively and fun, although the melancholy tint of "Portobello Road" most accurately captures the subtler mood of the film as a whole. The London waifs, truly a Dickensian trio, are played with enthusiasm by the child actors, particularly Ian Weighill. A wonderful cast of supporting players helps to round out the film, including Roddy McDowall, Sam Jaffe, and Reginald Owen. These are names that veteran classic movie fans will certainly recognize; McDowall, however, is probably the most familiar, having starred as a child in top-shelf classics like How Green was My Valley (1941) and Lassie Come Home (1943).
The scenes that combine live action and animation serve as the film's show pieces, but the numerous musical numbers also have their charms. In addition to "Portobello Road" we get the aquatic duet, "The Beautiful Briny," and the hypnotically catchy "Substitutiary Locomotion." DVD versions of the film also include an extended cut of "Portobello Road" plus an additional number from Tomlinson called "With a Flair." The longer rendition of "Portobello Road" provides an energetic - if historically incorrect - introduction to the many different countries that formed part of the British Empire at the time of World War II, and it's well worth watching even though it was deemed too long at the time of the film's original release.
The serious war theme that persists underneath the merriment of music and magic might escape the notice of very young viewers, but adults should pick up on it immediately. The children, already orphans, lose their guardian in London when a Nazi bomb falls on their home. Another bomb, this one unexploded, provides Emelius with a swanky temporary refuge, even though his general cowardice has prevented him from signing up for military duty. Nobody, however, really escapes the war, and the film offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the nature of war and its impact on non-combatants with children who might not have thought about such issues before. Contrast Eglantine's determination to help with Emelius' reluctance, and give some attention to the old men, veterans of World War I, who form the slightly silly but deeply noble Home Guard.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks earned five Oscar nominations and won for Best Visual Effects. If you want to see the breadth of Angela Lansbury's career, catch her early appearances in Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and then move on to The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and more recent films like Nanny McPhee (2005). Kids, of course, will recognize her as the voice of Mrs. Potts in Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991). You can see a young David Tomlinson in the 1948 mermaid comedy, Miranda, starring his Mary Poppins costar, Glynis Johns; he can also be found in Tom Jones (1963) and The Love Bug (1968).
An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.