As Disney’s greatest musical celebrates a historic anniversary, we reflect on the film that defined fantasy cinema.
It’s fairly widely accepted that Mary Poppins is one of the greatest films ever made, and the best Walt Disney ever produced. Less beloved, quite unfairly, is its 1971 follow-up Bedknobs and Broomsticks. After Poppins author P.L. Travers hated the finished film and refused to award Walt the rights to make a sequel (as seen in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks), Disney made a compromise, rehiring director Robert Stevenson and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman to adapt another fantasy novel, this time by The Borrowers author Mary Norton, into a big-budget musical.
I first watched Poppins and Bedknobs around the same time as a child, and I sincerely consider the latter to be my favourite. While Poppins is dripping in gorgeous production design and unforgettable songs, and features in Julie Andrews’ Mary one of cinema’s greatest heroes, the 1971 film has some extra layer of magic that I find utterly mesmerising. Returning from Poppins and given a more prominent role is the extraordinary David Tomlinson, who teams up with Angela Lansbury’s Miss Price and the three Rawlins orphans to defeat Nazis using magic. It’s a sublime film, setting the template for much contemporary fantasy cinema (so much of the Harry Potter films’ aesthetic is visible on Bedknobs‘ London streets). Lansbury (a phenomenally strong female lead) and Tomlinson are a delightful duo, and the children equally spectacular.
Though it has an assortment of incredible sequences, the almost indisputable highlight of the film is the “Portobello Road” sequence, an awe-inspiring blend of Dickensian and contemporary visions of London; more culturally diverse than one would likely see in a film today.
The most controversial and, arguably, mediocre sequence in Poppins is the extended delve into an animated world, featuring dancing penguins and a horserace. It’s good, but it’s of a lesser quality than the rest of that film. Bedknobs‘ similar sidestep into animation is, while relatively unoriginal, much more enjoyable: Tomlinson plays soccer against a literal Lion King following a dance sequence set underwater. Glorious.
Earlier this year, the children reunited to celebrate the 45th anniversary. How unimaginably sensational it must be, to have worked on such a phenomenal piece of cinema history, on set with legends like Lansbury, Tomlinson, the Sherman Brothers, Roddy McDowall and- to a perhaps lesser extent- Bruce Forsyth, who unfathomably makes a (very funny) cameo. Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a timeless classic, and- though criminally undervalued by so many- it’s a film we shall always adore and watch endlessly.