The Second World War has begun, and Britain is on lookout for a Nazi invasion. In a quaint coastal village, an unmarried heiress approaching middle-age is attempting to do her part for the war effort — by engaging in witchcraft – when she is confronted with two simultaneous problems: three orphaned child evacuees from London foisted upon her (because she does have six bedrooms) and her correspondence course for witchcraft closing down before she is able to get the last spell which is vital to her plans.
Naturally, Miss Eglantine Price decides to take the three children to find Professor Emelius Browne, her mentor by correspondence, and when they discover that he is little more than a street magician with a knack for fraud, all five set out on an adventure to find the words to the last spell before the Nazis arrive.
Along the way, the kids have a good time, Miss Price and Mr Browne fall in love, and there is lots of singing and dancing. The trip includes talking animals, which are featured heavily in the promotional material, but that is merely one stop. Far more of it takes place in London and the English countryside. As a child, I loved the talking animals as much as anyone else, but the main story was much more intriguing. As an adult, while the animals are still entertaining, the rest of the film doesn’t need the animated portion. The songs and relationships between the characters are entertaining enough. Miss Price and Mr Browne spend half of the film bantering back and forth. And the finale? Well, that is what made me fall in love with the Middle Ages.
In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, we are treated to not one, but two pageants of the British Empire – the first is a fun street dance showcasing various ethnicities from around the world assembled in London to fight in the war effort, while the second is one of the most hilarious and yet impressively patriotic battles in Disney history.
For all their wanting to kick the British out, Americans love British pageantry. In this film, the patriotism is all about the British Empire and its history. It is done respectfully and wistfully, as though the filmmakers were nostalgic for pre-WWII days when Britain ruled over a fifth of the world. The moral of the story, in fact, might be not to mess with a plucky little island that managed to take over a fifth of the globe and dominate the oceans.
The other mortal of the story is more pertinent: Step up to the plate and do your part, no matter how dull or weird or outrageous, and have fun with it while you’re at it.
P.S. – Also, check out the books that the film was loosely based on: Mary Norton‘s The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons (1943) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1945).