Here's an example of one of our longer write-ups in the book. These start with "Now Showing" information, a seventy-character "Preview" (always exactly seventy characters), a "Fine Line" (a quote from the movie), and a "Close-Up" on a specific scene. Then come the essay's title and a 900-word discussion, followed by an "Added Attraction" that supplements the main movie with an extra list or further analysis.


NOW SHOWING: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (November 1971)

Director: Robert Stevenson

Stars: Angela Lansbury, David Tomlinson, Roddy McDowall

Academy Awards: One win (Best Visual Effects), plus four more nominations (Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Song; Best Music)

PREVIEW: A witch learns a vital spell that she uses to save her village from a military attack.

FINE LINE: "We live in a world of fakery and false images. It is not what things are. It is what they seem to be." (Emelius Browne, chatting up his customers as he tries to impress them with cheap magic tricks.)

CLOSE-UP: The opening credits are styled like the Bayeux Tapestry, the famous 230-foot-long eleventh-century embroidery that depicts historical events in the Middle Ages. In the movie, the tapestry panels tip off the movie's plot by showing a flying witch, other main characters, the ghostly army, and the arrival of gun-firing Nazis.


In the early 1960s, Walt Disney, battling with author P.L. Travers over the rights and the direction for what would become Mary Poppins (1964), purchased the rights to some 1940s books by Mary Norton as a back-up in case his Poppins plan collapsed. Norton's stories finally became a movie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, five years after Walt's death. The two movies have many similarities (see "Added Attraction"), and Bedknobs inevitably suffers in comparison with its blockbuster multiple-Oscar-winning predecessor, but it still stands as a worthy, watchable effort.

Different versions of the movie try to cope with the long 139-minute runtime by shaving off scenes and songs. The full-version movie basically divides into three sections that go from rural England to London (with a side trip to a fantasy island) and then back to the English countryside. The year is 1940, early in World War Two and "a time for valor" and "whispered events." The unorthodox Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury) enters riding a motorcycle and reluctantly takes in three young orphans evacuated from London. They quickly figure out that she's an "apprentice witch" and travel with her to London so she can learn a spell that she says will be "exceptionally important" to "the war effort." The forty-second trip is made via a magical bed that flies past flashing stars and over unnaturally colored landscapes, a sequence that abbreviates some of the famous Star Gate ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

In London the co-star, David Tomlinson, shows up as "The Great Emelius Browne," a self-described "fraud" and "fake" sidewalk magician. Another sequence echoing a classic 1968 movie ensues when entertainers and merchants perform the "Portobello Road" dance number that's a close cousin of the energetic "Consider Yourself" street frolic in Oliver! Unfortunately, the spell that Eglantine wants is missing five key words, which she and the others can only get by flying the bed to the animated island of Naboombu. The live-action group has an underwater animated adventure, moves to land for a hilarious soccer match played by various animated animals, and zooms away with the necessary words back to the English coast. It was a daring decision to interrupt the main live action with a twenty-two minute animated side trip, but this clever sequence emerges as the movie's highlight. However, it too is a little derivative: some of those animals seem like they're straight out of Fantasia (1940), and the bear is visually a dead-ringer for Baloo in The Jungle Book (1967).

The last section starts with a radio reminder of a "possible invasion." Soon Nazis, who were embroidered into the tapestry shown in the opening credits, slink in from their U-boat and start executing "a minor raid to induce panic and to spread a little mischief." Eglantine takes to her broomstick and orchestrates a novel defense of her village. Her last spell, "substitutiary locomotion," causes "objects to take on a life force of their own" and brings hundreds of suits of armor to life so they can ride on ghostly steeds for a one-sided battle against the hopelessly overmatched Nazis. Conman Emelius Browne musters some bravery at the end, then he gives Eglantine a real smooch and joins the army, leaving her with the kids and World War Two.

Given all the songs, spells and Disney flourishes, what could go wrong? The almost two-and-a-half-hour length, for one thing. Scenes that enchant some viewers will bore seem lumbering to others (the ten-minute long "Portobello Road" is a prime example). The casting might also be a concern. As endearing and tuneful as Angela Lansbury is, she's no Julie Andrews, one of the century's truly great singers. Andrews gave her Mary Poppins songs personality and polish; Lansbury gets through hers like a pro but without Andrews' elevated artistry. What's more, the Bedknobs kids have an uneven appeal: the oldest, an eleven-year-old boy, does most of the talking and is borderline obnoxious, telling his six-year-old brother "shut up, you" and drawing the comment, "You're no fun anymore," from his sister. Third-billed Roddy McDowall is barely in the movie at all.

The songs are another problem. None of them is consequential, not even the Oscar-nominated "The Age of Not Believing," which is pretty but unmemorable (in contrast, Mary Poppins boasts several songs, such as "Chim Chim Cher-ee" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," that most people recognize, even if they haven't seen the movie). Some critics also take issue with the presence of Nazis in a children's fantasy movie. Kids may have no grasp of Nazis, other than as generic villains. Also, the close-ups of their realistic machine guns blasting point-blank at oncoming knights might be unsettling.

Despite these drawbacks, there's still plenty to recommend. The movie boasts lovely live-action backgrounds and impressive interiors. The wonderful Naboombu interlude was created with the help of Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, and Ward Kimball, four of the legendary animators Walt called his "nine old men." The superlative climactic battle with the empty suits of armor is the kind of imaginative sequence that Disney's special-effects wizards do best (even the head Nazi calls the scene a "pretty good trick"). As is often the case, it's Disney magic that makes Bedknobs and Broomsticks an entertaining fantasy.

ADDED ATTRACTION: The Poppins/Bedknobs Connection

A dozen overlaps between Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The original version of Bedknobs is 139-minutes long, the same as Poppins.

Same director: Robert Stevenson

Same screenwriters: Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi

Same co-starring actor: David Tomlinson

Same supporting actor: Reginald Owen

Same background artist: Peter Ellenshaw

Same composers: Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

Both movies have songs named after made-up words (Poppins = "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," Bedknobs = "Substitutiary Locomotion")

Both movies have an eccentric woman (who sings and flies) taking care of someone else's children.

Both movies drop live-action actors into animated settings with animated characters.

Both movies won an Oscar for Best Special Visual Effects.

Both movies have a "hidden Mickey," an inconspicuous image of Mickey Mouse. Early in Mary Poppins, Bert plays a base drum that appears to be adorned with a stylized Mickey from Steamboat Willie (1928); eighty-seven minutes into Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a small bear in the upper-right corner clearly wears a blue Mickey Mouse T-shirt.


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