I did not like this film. It’s pretty much Mary Poppins Fights Nazis in World War II, and it’s done without the energy or intelligence of the actual Mary Poppins adventure. The music is fine, but it’s mostly poorly used. The animation sequence isn’t as good and feels much more like a distraction than the similar sequence in a movie about distractions. The children feel completely unused, and the biggest sequences barely involve our characters. I found the whole experience rather tedious.
It’s World War II and children are leaving London for the countryside. We follow three siblings who are the last to be handed out in the small village of Pepperinge Eye. They end up with a woman who secretly has been apprenticing to become a witch through a correspondence course. After discovering her secret (the very first night they’re there), they try to blackmail her into giving them what they want, but it doesn’t work. Instead, she enchants a bedknob that the youngest can use by saying a place, twisting the knob on the bed a quarter degree, and then travel to that place instantly. All of this is fine. It’s set up to an adventure, and I wouldn’t expect it to be the most compelling pieces of narrative storytelling ever. It’s little more than fine, though.
They go to London first because her correspondence course got suddenly canceled, and she wants to visit Dr. Browne, the headmaster of the school, to get the final lesson. He’s a street performer, though (who lives in a mansion), openly admitting that he’s a fraud and demanding payment for it (with little success). They meet, polite invective gets thrown about because he’s not who he portrayed himself to be, and they end up looking for the second half of the book he had pulled the real magic spells he sent to her, which could be on Portobello Road.
Now, Portobello Road is the first of three major set pieces in the film. It’s a big song and dance number where Dr. Browne explains the workings of the street and then stands aside as a bunch of performers who aren’t any of our five characters, dance in a series of different styles for several minutes. This is fun in a vacuum, but it ends up being little more than a distraction. I could easily imagine ways to include the characters directly, especially the witch who could have navigated the dancing, following a few steps here and there just to get through and to the next stack of books from which she might find the book in question.
Find the book they do, when they get held up by a man with a three inch knife and the man pushes the bed through the alleys of London himself to a small underground bookstore. They find a clue to where the magic words of the final lesson should be, and the five characters use the magical bed to transport themselves to a cartoon island (a whole lot like Poppins jumping into the sidewalk chalk, if you ask me) where Mr. Browne has to referee a soccer match. This is the second big set piece, and Browne gets completely lost in it, falling to the background and barely in frame as a bunch of cartoon animals float around a field and harshly play the sport. The other four are on the sidelines.
With the spell firmly in hand, they return to England and the witch’s home where she tries out the spell that makes inanimate objects come to life, much to an amusing bit of fun. It is honestly amusing when the witch’s nightgown floats in and Mr. Browne dances with it as Browne’s shoes go haywire and start kicking everyone in sight.
But then we get the special effects showpiece, a raid of Nazis into the southern coast of England and the witch’s countermeasures, bringing a museum of armor and weaponry to life to fight off the Nazis and back to their submarine. Like the other two major set pieces, this barely involves our characters again. The witch nominally controls things from the air, but it never feels like it. It feels like the armor is acting on its own. We do see Browne and the children throw some rocks at a Nazi once, though, and that’s as involved as they get.
And I think the summation of those three set pieces encapsulates my opinions of this movie. The drama is completely empty. The highest moments barely have anything to do with our characters, functioning as empty displays of dancing, cartoon, and special effects. There’s supposed to be some sort of message about supporting England in the face of Nazism (a challenging lesson for 1971, I’m sure), but it feels tacked on at best.
I was underwhelmed and mostly bored by this movie.