During my recent Disney marathon, I came across several of my favorite Disney movies that are not as well known. At least, I don’t think they are. While my husband seemed to only vaguely remember watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks with his grandmother, I had very vivid memories of the movie and was excited to watch it again. I remember my mother had recorded it on a VHS that I watched frequently, and it is one of the movies that made me obsessed with witches as a kid long before Harry Potter came around. While re-watching it, I was extremely nervous that the movie would be nowhere near as good as I remembered, but thankfully, while it had a lot more problematic elements than I noticed as a kid, it definitely has held up over time.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks came out in 1971 and stars a young Angela Lansbury as Eglantine Price. Eglantine is a reclusive woman living during World War II and is training to be a witch through a correspondence school. She hopes that she will soon learn enough to use her powers to help with the war effort and is looking into one spell in particular that she believes could be of use. However, things get complicated when she is forced to take in three children who were evacuated from London—Charlie, Carrie, and Paul Rawlins. Eglantine takes in the three kids on the understanding that they should be placed into a better home as soon as possible. The Rawlins kids are not happy with the arrangement either and try to run away to London, but when they see Eglantine attempting to ride a broom, the kids decide to stay. Eglantine offers the children a traveling spell in exchange for their silence. The children agree and Eglantine enchants a bedknob, which will now allow the bed to travel anywhere the children ask it to.
Later Eglantine receives a letter informing her that her witchcraft school is being closed, even though she was so close to receiving her witch’s certificate and getting the spell she needs to help in the war effort. She convinces the children to use the enchanted bedknob to travel to London so that she can speak with Professor Emilius Brown, the head of the college. However, when she finally meets Brown, she discovers that he is nothing more than a showman. He is shocked that Eglantine can do real magic and reveals that he has been simply sending her spells he found in an old book. Brown explains he got the book at Portobello Road, but it was torn in half when another man tried to take it from him. Eglantine believes that half of the book has the spell she needs, and so Eglantine, Brown, and the children run off to find it. At Portobello Road they meet a man named the Bookman who has the other half of the book. However, his half of the book just makes mention of a medallion, called the Star of Astaroth, which has the spell inscribed on it. Bookman explains that the medallion may have been stolen by animals that Astaroth was trying to make more human-like through magic, but the animals rebelled against him, took the medallion, and are now hiding on an island called Naboombu. Bookman doesn’t believe the island exists, but Paul reveals the very island is mentioned in one of his pictures. Eglantine, Brown, and the children then use the bed to travel to Naboombu.
The five meet a kingdom of anthropomorphic animals ruled by a lion who is wearing the Star of Astaroth around his neck. Brown manages to steal the necklace and the group returns to Eglantine’s home. Eglantine reveals that the spell is called Substitutiary Locomotion, which allows her to make clothes move and animate on their own. But when she tries out the spell, she discovers it is difficult to control the clothing. However, not long after this, a platoon of Nazis invade the little town and kidnap Eglantine and the children, but Brown manages to get away. Brown later finds Eglantine again where she is being held in the museum with the children. He helps give Eglantine the confidence to use Substitutiary Locomotion on the museum exhibits, and she controls armor and the uniforms of soldiers to fight off the Nazi invasion.
The movie ends with Eglantine and Brown becoming an item and the two decide to take in the three children permanently. Brown joins the war effort as a soldier and Eglantine reveals she is giving up being a witch because she never feels she was cut out for it anyway. Everything about the movie is great, except for the ending, which I apparently ignored or forgot about as a kid, because I never remembered her giving up being a witch.
There is a lot I don’t like about the ending, but it certainly followed a theme I noticed in a lot of early Disney movies to create “normal family units”. First of all, it is mentioned that the Rawlins children were evacuated from London, but it’s never mentioned that they were orphaned. I assumed that the kids were similar to the children in Narnia, meaning that they were sent away from London for their own protection, but still had a family. Heck, when they try to run back to London, you assume they are returning to their parents, but apparently that isn’t the case. The children also never seem to view Eglantine as a mother figure until after they meet Emilius Brown and Paul asks him if he’s going to be their father now. It seemed off to me that any sort of affections like that weren’t first geared toward Eglantine, and of course, the movie only wants to try to impose this family unit onto us after we have our unnecessary heteronormative relationship in the mix.
Which brings me to my next point: I hate Emilius Brown and the shoehorned romance between him and Eglantine. From the beginning, he is presented as this charlatan who was selling classes on witchcraft when he didn’t even believe was real. Then, when he meets Eglantine and realizes she can do real magic, he tries to convince her to be his assistant in a magic show. This just means that he wants her to do real magic behind the scenes while he passes it off as his own. He claims that his showmanship is what makes him better suited to this position. Brown eventually starts helping Eglantine and does seem to care for the kids, but I never perceived any real chemistry between the two. Eglantine comes to enjoy Brown’s company and he does help her feel more confident in herself, but the two never show any real romantic inclination. They get one dance sequence in an underwater kingdom, in the lake on Naboombu, but if this is supposed to be where their romance happens, it’s overshadowed by the special effects. All the scenes on Naboombu combine animation with live action, and the dance sequence underwater especially seemed to be more about showcasing those effects than it did about portraying any sort of romance.
Then there is Eglantine’s character arc. She starts out as a reclusive woman who likes being alone. She doesn’t want to get married and has no desire for children. She is perfectly content to live alone and practice witchcraft. Awesome! But of course we have to give her an unnecessary romance and children and have her stop practicing witchcraft at the end because that’s really more “proper” for a woman, amirite? It especially bugs me that part of what is supposed to be good about Eglantine’s and Brown’s relationship is that he helps boost her confidence, but at the end she quits because she says she was never very good at it anyway and makes some half-hearted comment about how some potion ingredients are too gross for her (and we never even see her use those ingredients for her spells anyway). This is the woman who used a complicated spell to lead an army against the Nazis and stopped England from being invaded, but she isn’t a good enough witch?! Perhaps I would view the ending and Brown’s relationship with Eglantine differently if he tried to tell her that she was amazing and convinced her to continue being a witch. But alas, everything interesting about Eglantine is undone at the end of the movie.
My only other complaint about this movie is that there is some questionable racism in the Portobello Road dance number where various minority groups appear to be rather exotified. The dance number shows Sikh men in turbans dancing with large swords and the only Black people in the movie dance much more sexually to Jamaican steel drums. I do think this is actually more of an attempt on this movie’s part to showcase diversity in London as they also show Irish women and Scottish men doing traditional dances as well. To the movie’s credit, though, it does show everyone getting along and enjoying each other’s cultures while not erasing their own. However, this is the only diversity in the movie, and it definitely says something that the only people of color in the whole movie were exotic and sexualized dancers. After all, there were people of color in London during WWII, and they were doing way more things than being exotic and sexualized.
I know I just complained a lot about this movie, but until the ending, it is actually really enjoyable, and for the most part Eglantine is a very strong character. It was great to have, at least until the end of the movie, a female character who isn’t interested in relationships or children. I also loved that Eglantine was very no-nonsense about magic. She doesn’t have any sort of theatrics when she performs magic and treats it the same as she would learning how to do anything else. There is even a great line where Carrie asks her what the name of her cat is and Eglantine responds by saying that she doesn’t believe in giving animals ridiculous names, but then says that she calls him Cosmic Creepers because that’s the name he came with. It’s such a great line and it really says a lot about who Eglantine is. She is very sensible and very reasonable, but willing to accept and believe in weird things or a cat coming with a ridiculous name. The special effects are also pretty amazing for its time. The combination with the animation and live action was done really well, and while I am not a special effects buff, I still really want to know how they did some of the effects to make the armor and clothing look like it’s moving. If you watch the movie, it doesn’t look like it’s just wires. So yes, despite some of these flaws, I still love this movie, but you might want to do like I did as a kid and just pretend that the ending didn’t happen.
Follow Lady Geek Girl and Friends on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook!
This is a Disney film that I always loved (despite its many problems, which you illuminated very nicely), and think would make a good possibility for a remake, if done in earnest and with more attention to changing some bits that weren’t great the first time around, e.g. the ham-fisted relationship between Brown and Price (though the “Eglantine, Eglantine, Oh how you’ll shine!” song is catchy!). It would be great if they did remakes that were still musicals these days…
I love this film. This is one of those Disney films I really wish there would be a stage version of. Though some of the effects would be hard to do
I watched this a few times as a kid, but clearly, I remembered NONE of it, as almost nothing about this recap was familiar! However, I do have a theory about why it ended that way, besides the old-fashioned need to end all happy stories with a heteronormative family unit. Witchcraft is eeeeevil, remember? Even today, we have Christians opposed to Harry Potter because it seems to romanticize what they view as inherently satanic. This was probably an even stronger belief at the time this movie was made. I bet it originally ended differently, with Eglantine remaining a witch, but the “censors” at Disney thought that would send *too* positive of a message about magic, so they changed it. I wonder if you could find any history behind this movie online somewhere…