My Misspent Youth In Films...
Directed by: Robert Stevenson
Starring: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke
Released: June 18, 1965
Directed by: Robert Stevenson
Starring: Angela Lansbury, David Tomlinson
Released: December 13, 1971
What I Thought Then
For our first ever double-feature, I present two very different musicals about magical women looking after children in England only to take them on a misadventure into a cartoon and have odd run-ins with David Tomlinson. They were a lot of fun with catchy songs and silly characters and just a dash of awe and wonder. These movies were the reason that--as a very young child--I constantly confused Julie Andrews and Angela Lansbury, despite the fact that they look nothing alike and have different-sounding names.
What I Think Now
Both films suffer from the early Disney malady of not having much driving the narrative. They're more a series of charming vignettes, although they manage to each give David Tomlinson a redemption arc, if no one else. Of the two, Mary Poppins has aged far more gracefully. It has a better script and better music. The film is layered with humor for adults, having background plots about the financial stability of England as well as the women's suffrage movement. The presentation of magic is more whimsical than psychedelic. But the real strength is in the lead actors. Andrews is a mountain of on-screen charisma with a dynamite singing voice. Van Dyke, meanwhile, is giving a top-notch clown performance (regrettable accent notwithstanding), and it feels like the two are constantly trying to outdo each other. Their rapport is quite remarkable, as they have a loving relationship that feels less like a romance than like two transient people who recognize each other as kindred spirits that have temporarily fallen into each others' orbits.
I'm amazed at how many little details have stuck with me over the years. For years I have mimicked the laugh that Mary makes when she finds her tape measure without even realizing where it came from. I still remember the jokes from the sequence where Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn, doing his Ed Wynniest) is stuck to the ceiling. I can still remember bits of most of the songs, and some of these are just barn-burners. I mean, who doesn't still remember Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or Chim Chim Che-ree or Let's Go Fly A Kite? Or, my god, the choreography of Step-In-Time. I was thoroughly entertained.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks doesn't hold up quite as well. And I think the biggest problem is that Lansbury and Tomlinson feel miscast in the leads, which were almost certainly written with younger actors in mind. They're both quite capable, but Lansbury feels too wise and maternal to come across as a bumbling apprentice who doesn't know the first thing to do with these children that have suddenly come under her care. Tomlinson, similarly, is a con artist who has been shirking his responsibilities by choosing not to serve in the second World War, but the man was 54 when this movie came out, so that rings especially false. The cartoon sequence in the middle is interesting enough, I guess. There's a love story subplot between Lansbury and Tomlinson and just shows off how little romantic chemistry the two have. In many ways, it feels like a knock-off of, well... Mary Poppins.
Despite its shortcomings, there are some nice moments. The songs The Beautiful Briney and Portobello Road are both great. The finale, in which a small platoon of Nazis invades the quiet township where Lansbury resides, feels a tad overlong and ponderous, but does feature some of the magical whimsy that we've come to expect from a Robert Stevenson joint. And, you know, defeating the Nazis is always worth watching.
As far as representation goes, these are fifty-year-old Disney movies that are themselves romanticized portrayals of even older times, so they are extremely white and heteronormative. In Mary Poppins, Mr. Banks makes a reference to "red Indians" which would not fly today. Bedknobs and Broomsticks fares slightly better. There's an extended dance sequence in the middle of Portobello Road that features various peoples from throughout the British Empire, including people from India and the Caribbean. While their dancing is certainly on display for its exoticism more than anything else, the movie is celebrating it rather than mocking it, or at least that's how it appeared to me.
Both are on Disney+, and if you have fond memories, they're not going to disabuse you of them. Mary Poppins in particular took me straight back to my childhood. We watched it with the kids and they loved it. My oldest is already asking to see it again.