Nanny McPhee (2005) / Fantasy-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for  crude humor and brief language
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Thomas Sangster, Kelly Macdonald, Angela Lansbury, Celia Imrie, Derek Jacobi, Patrick Barlow, Imelda Staunton, Eliza Bennett, Raphael Coleman, Holly Gibbs, Sam Honywood
Director: Kirk Jones
Screenplay: Emma Thompson (based on the "Nurse Matilda" books by Christianna Brand)

Review published February 10, 2006

A mildly arresting family film, which probably would have been instantly forgettable if not for the quality of the main players, Nanny McPhee, based on the series of "Nurse Matilda" books, hits the right notes at the right times to overcome its inherent derivativeness.  Many will view this as another variation on the Mary Poppins formula, while others will think it is an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, but given the fact that the "Nurse Matilda" stories were published in the 1960s, it's not a matter of emulation so much as tapping into a burgeoning market.  What Nanny McPhee lacks in terms of truly original ideas, it makes up for with heart and good cheer, and the messages of politeness and respect for one's elders will also meet well for many adults taking their children to the theater.

The film begins with widower Cedric Brown (Firth, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), alone with his seven spoiled children, living in near poverty while not being able to retain child care services -- the children always scare them away.  Enter Nanny McPhee (Thompson, Prisoner of Azkaban), with a take-no-BS attitude and a sprinkle of magical powers, she aims to make the terrible tykes into respectful and attentive young people in five basic lessons.  The children, of course, fight back, creating a war of wills that teaches them hard lessons of life.  However, despite the successes the nanny has, the family is being threatened with being broken up into foster homes by the children's manipulative Great Aunt Adelaide (Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate), who gives Cedric a month to find a suitable wife or be cut off from her financial assistance for good.

While Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket comparisons remain inevitable, where Nanny McPhee differs, and excels, is in its story-based approach.  Those other films are driven by special effects and production design, and though Nanny McPhee has its moments of those, the emphasis is clearly more on characters and story development. There is a predictability to the story that keeps it from being anything truly mesmerizing, but it is energetic enough to keep most of the lulls at bay, and by the end of the film, actually manages to encroach on being somewhat touching.

While there are some things to admire, Emma Thompson's screenplay tends to stray into areas of being too cute for its own good at times, and the direction by Kirk Jones probably could have used a bit more whimsy and less slapstick in the delivery. It's also not a particularly funny comedy, reveling in delightfulness rather than witticisms.  If you're immune to fanciful dessert films that continuously poke you until you smile, this may be a difficult film to endure, so be warned.

However, in a film world where Hollywood tripe like Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pacifier, Are We There Yet?, Son of the Mask, and the Olsen twins films are what gets churned out for families to choose among, a movie that actually has inspiration and positive messages about parenting that aren't overbearing deserves to be praised more so than nitpicked. It's a family film from the old school, which should not only delight a generation of kids that rarely get to view colorful stories told with heart, but parents don't have to come out of it with a headache and nausea from the noise and excessive potty humor.  It may be reminiscent of so many other children's stories before it, but in the world of family films, if you want a charmer that you can will leave you feeling better than you were going in, you need Nanny McPhee.

-- Followed by Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo