During WWII three evacuee children are sent to live with Eglantine Price, who turns out to be a trainee witch. From there they embark on a series of adventures, travelling using a magic bed, in search of the mystical words that will enable Price to help with the war effort.
From the team that brought you Mary Poppins comes a whole lot more of the same. And while the songs have none of the enduring catchiness of A Spoonful Of Sugar or Chim-Chim Cher-ee, the blend of real-life action and deliciously elaborate animation is fabulous.
Angela Lansbury, one of those actors who arrived fully middle-aged, takes over from Julie Andrews as the kooky, genial pseudo-mother figure — here a proto-witch on a magical correspondence course rather than a flying nanny — and does a fair job with the necessary blend of the ethereal and stoical English pragmatism. As was the modus operandi of this early ‘70s brand of Disney wish-fulfilment, the trio of kids are simply bland ciphers for the nipper audience, travelling by an enchanted bedstead to magical worlds characterised by being gloriously cartoon. Such lavish animation threaded with flesh and blood characters is a wonderful, transporting idea for children, a lost art amongst the clever-clever majesty of CGI.
An underwater number, in which the human’s sing through bubbles, boasts a wild assortment of anthropomorphised sea critters, but the highlight is a soccer match staged by the lion king of Naboomland. With perennially stiff-uppered Poppins–remainder David Tomlinson as ref, the rules are more a matter of royal decree, and a scuffling, baffling, riotously fun game ensues between all manner of elephants, lions, bears, hogs, rhinos and cheetahs.
It’s an irritation then that the film feels the need to return to the threat of the war. Lansbury’s plan, and the overarching plot device, is to complete a spell to animate an army of hollow suits of armour to take on the invading Nazis. A heavy concept for kids to take hold off, especially given how faceless the enemy are, and the strange dashes of jingoistic pride are almost distasteful: “We have drive the Hun into the sea,” the good witch declares with some satisfaction.
Like Lansbury, the film has aged well and retains almost all of it's magic.