With Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks both now streaming on Disney Plus, Polygon has resurfaced the most important take of the century.
When it comes to Disney stories about witchy women and magical nannies, Mary Poppins has brand name recognition, but Bedknobs and Broomsticks is the true paragon of the genre.
Directed by Mary Poppins helmer Robert Stevenson and released in 1971, seven years after Poppins, despite the fact that the film rights were secured beforehand, Bedknobs and Broomsticks has the same general highlights: magic, animated worlds, and coming of age lessons for children and adults alike. Bedknobs, however, is undeniably stranger, leaning into the film’s setting during the Blitz as well as making the adults a more prominent part of the story.
Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury) may not be as impeccably put together as Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews in the 1964 film, and Emily Blunt in this year’s sequel), but that’s part of what makes her practically perfect. When Charlie, Carrie, and Paul Rawlins (Ian Weighill, Cindy O’Callaghan, and Roy Snart, respectively) come into her care, she hasn’t flown in to take of them so much as reluctantly rolled in on her stuttering, sulfur-powered motorcycle. The three children have just been evacuated from London, and they’re only meant to stay with Miss Price — who has the space to house them — temporarily. She has her own problems to take care of, including the unwanted advances of an amorous clergyman and the correspondence class she’s taking in order to become a full-fledged witch — her way of helping with the war effort.
As the adventure progresses (with the help of one Emelius Browne, played by Poppins’ David Tomlinson), the film veers between child-friendly antics and more adult existential crises, swapping animated soccer games with anthropomorphized animals with fending off Nazi commandos. In other words, it’s tonally all over the map, and largely held together by Lansbury and Tomlinson’s combined charm and force of will.
Mary Poppins might be a more coherent film (and there’s nothing that last year’s sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, proves if not that the original Poppins is irreplicable), although it’s the adults’ plights — specifically that of the incumbent Mr. Banks — rather than the Mary’s whimsical exploits that prove the most interesting. In neither Poppins nor the new sequel is it really the children who need to grow up beyond doing their chores without complaint; anxiety about growing up is expressed through the adults. The tidying up that Mary Poppins does is, to that point, largely incidental, even if the songs accompanying said chores are a delight.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks achieves more of a balance by bringing its magical figure closer to the ground. Eglantine is ambitious in a way that alienates some of the people around her, and has to contend with the social expectations of the time as well as her own uncertainty about what she wants from the future. She’s a local oddity for being a woman living on her own, but that’s the way she likes it, and when a potential partner and children enter her life, she has to consider the change it would make were they to stay permanently. Would having a family preclude being able to fly around on a broomstick or ride a motorcycle around town?
Browne, on the other hand, is a con man, fleeing from responsibility, war, and almost fleeing from the events of the adventure of the film, as well. His personal growth — and Eglantine’s, too — occurs in conjunction with the adventures of the children, as opposed to being shown to us only intermittently, and creates a better arc through the film even if the events that propel them get a little wild.
The magic that Eglantine is ultimately able to perform — “substitutiary locomotion,” or bringing inanimate objects to life — is the perfect example of the film’s tonal extremes, as it’s simultaneously delightful and a little creepy. The majesty of suits of armor starting to move on their own doesn’t cancel out the paranormal terror of animated household objects getting a little too insistent about being paid attention to.
The film’s biggest musical number, “Portobello Road,” speaks the wonder of what can be found in a street market and London’s multiculturality, but it’s still shot with a certain griminess as befitting of the setting (as well as a brief implication that Browne has kept the company of prostitutes before, which isn’t quite what you usually see in a kids’ movie). “Beautiful Briny Sea,” by contrast, has none of that roughness, by virtue of the fact that it takes place in the animated lagoon of Naboombu. It takes on a sublime kind of dreaminess instead, shedding any and all trappings of the real, non-animated world.
The finale — in which the aforementioned suits of armor ward off invading Nazis, and the military faction fires at a broom-riding Eglantine with heavy artillery — falls somewhere in the middle, flying in the face of any sense of realism while also retaining hints of the sharpness that make the non-animated aspects of the film so compelling. It’s off-kilter and sublime, distinguishing itself not only as not a Mary Poppins knockoff, but as the superior story.
It’s an argument made handily by Angela Lansbury’s appearance in Mary Poppins Returns, a role primed for a Julie Andrews cameo. The scene plays like a passing of the baton from one Poppins to another, and to a certain degree, the casting decision makes sense; Lansbury is guaranteed to hit a home run no matter what role she’s in, she’s already in the Disney family as Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, and she has the kind of beatific aura required for the part. The only snag is that Lansbury has starred in her own Poppins-esque vehicle — and a much more interesting one, at that.
In its indulgence of extremes, Bedknobs and Broomsticks becomes unwieldy, but also capable of reaching unforgettable heights. It’s a more singular film than Mary Poppins, despite how often the two are lumped together given their surface similarities, and Eglantine Price — who notably does not gaslight the children in her care — is a tangible being rather than the utterly supernatural entity that is Mary Poppins. She changes, she learns, she grows — and she deserves to be remembered.