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Nanny McPhee   C+

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2005 (USA: 2006)
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Kirk Jones
Writer: Emma Thompson (based on books by Christianna Brand)
Cast: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, Kelly Macdonald, Celia Imrie, Imedla Staunton, Thomas Sangster.

Review by Rob Vaux

To those of you who always wanted to refer to Mary Poppins as "the hot one," your hour has come! And with no less a presence than Emma Thompson as chaperone. Nanny McPhee is a retake on the tried-and-true magical governess notion, with a script penned by Thompson from a series of books by Christianna Brand. Lady Emma plays the title character as well: a mottled, warty, good witch of a nanny who appears like Superman at the clarion call of overwhelmed Edwardian parents everywhere. Considering the current rash of like-minded TV shows such as Nanny 911, it must have been an easy sell to the studios. The difficulty, however, is that this variation on the theme struggles to make a lasting impression -- despite the near-endless charms of its lead.

To be sure, there are far worse films you can feed your children. With family entertainment so dominated by shrill cartoon characters and too-hip cultural references, the old-fashioned story of a supernatural nanny who teaches kids how to eat their supper and behave comes as a blessed relief. It doesn't hurt that Thompson has infused the script with a liberal helping of English wit -- the sort of deadpan observations that she and co-star Colin Firth wield like a fencer's foil. Director Kirk Jones gives them free rein to do their thing, while bringing a deft touch to the rest of the film. He works particularly well with the child actors, seven of whom populate the screen and whose characters' antics have driven their widower father (Firth) to the brink of madness. Enter McPhee, with her disturbing unibrow, protruding tooth and twisted walking stick that inflicts all manner of magical mischief on little ones who don't do as they're told. She arrives during a storm one night, and immediately begins setting things aright with a series of properly ironic lessons for the children. Faking an illness? Nanny McPhee will make it real enough, and add some truly hideous medicine to cure it as well. Won't get up? One tap of her staff will have you locked down to your bed all day, unable to move. Her magic has some intriguing rules attached to it, and though it is firm and unyielding, it never truly harms. Soon enough, the children are adding "please" and "thank you" to their remarks, leaving their harried father free to remarry at last.

The scenario is tinged with shades of Roald Dahl-style darkness, which Thompson endeavors to harness without detracting from the overall gentility. At times, she errs too much on the side of caution, leaving a few ominous overtones and the sense that the filmmakers are backing off from what they really want to do. Firth's search for a wife, for example, arises from a need to stay out of debtor's prison, while his odious aunt (Angela Lansbury in full-bore dowager mode) constantly threatens to take his children away. But such developments resonate only fitfully, providing routine dramatic impetus rather than the grim whimsy for which they seem intended.

Other elements of the production ebb and flow with similar results. McPhee's lessons are vaguely clever, but aim for a poetic symmetry that needed a few additional drafts of the screenplay to realize. The lightweight humor will buoy audience members of all ages, but it never entirely blends with the earnest children's fable at the movie's core. The technical trappings stumble into flat-out disaster, with brightly colored sets and costumes that prove more eyesore than inspiration. The rest of the mixture is rarely that bad, but it often feels too chaotic for comfort -- a lot of strong concepts trying overly hard to gel into a coherent whole. They never do, and Nanny McPhee suffers interminably as a result.

Thompson, of course, does a lot to mitigate those problems. Her performance is a delight -- as is Firth's -- and a supporting cast of great British character actresses (including Lansbury, Kelly Macdonald, Imelda Staunton, and Celia Imrie) bravely helps them hold the line. The movie's children, too, make a pleasing presence, and Jones tempers their bad behavior with some thoughtful material about its causes. They all strive gallantly to deliver the goods, and a little more development might have yielded an infinitely greater reward. But too much of the equation never coheres; too many aspects of the production feel disjointed and lost. In the end, it may simply be that Nanny McPhee is no match for that other movie governess -- the practically perfect one, whose shadow is long indeed. Thompson and company clearly want to capture her magic, and their work to that end has its share of rewards. But Nanny McPhee is a long way from practically perfect... and its flashes of quality only remind us how far it still has to go.

Review published 01.27.2006.

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