Director : Kirk Jones
Screenplay : Emma Thompson (based one the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Emma Thompson (Nanny McPhee), Colin Firth (Cedric Brown), Kelly Macdonald (Evangeline), Celia Imrie (Selma Quickly), Derek Jacobi (Mr. Wheen), Patrick Barlow (Mr. Jowls), Imelda Staunton (Mrs. Blatherwick), Thomas Sangster (Simon Brown), Angela Lansbury (Great Aunt Adelaide)
Nanny McPhee has a gorgeous visual palette of splashy colors and a witty, just-this-side-of-naughty sense of dark humor that is one of the guiding hallmarks of memorable children’s entertainment. It doesn’t talk down to kids, but rather to them, and it recognizes that lessons are best learned when they’re suggested, rather than dictated.
Wrapped up humorously in mayhem and mischief, Nanny McPhee tells the story of the Brown brood, a gaggle of seven out-of-control kids whose widowed father (Colin Firth) is desperately looking for a new wife, lest he lose the crucial monthly allowance allotted to him by his relentlessly upper-crust Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), a trilling, beak-nosed tyrant who thinks she knows what’s best for everyone. Having gone through 17 nannies, all of whom were driven off by the kids (the most recent bursts into Mr. Brown’s office screaming, “They’ve eaten the baby!”), Mr. Brown is at wit’s end until he hears a mysterious voice tell him, “What you need is Nanny McPhee.”
And then Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) arrives one night on the doorstep, and everything quickly changes. Initially a horrid sight with her two great warts (one of which sprouts hair that is given a constant nasty backlight), unibrow, oversized earlobes, and one great snaggle tooth, Nanny McPhee turns out to be just what the kids need--a tyrant who understands them. Using a dash of magic and a controlled sense of discipline, Nanny McPhee turns the kids’ tricks on themselves, teaching them in the process five important lessons that are ultimately all about the need to respect others and thus themselves.
Director Kirk Jones, in his first stint behind the camera since 1998’s Waking Ned Devine, understands the importance of detail and innocuous exaggeration in a story of this sort, and he gets excellent mileage from his troupe of colorful British character actors. Angela Lansbury, in particular, nails the pretentious snoot Great Aunt Adelaide, as does Celia Imrie as Selma Quickly, a pastel-wearing, gold-digging floozy who is Mr. Brown’s awful, last-minute choice for a new bride. Jones also deploys special effects with a light touch, never forcing them or making them overwhelm the characters or situations. The only misstep is the youngest of the Brown brood, a baby who is made to utter certain words with the help of digital effects, which always (and I mean always) produces a creepy, uncanny effect that ruins any potential humor.
Nanny McPhee was based on a series of British children’s books published in the 1960s by Christianna Brand. Emma Thompson, in her first screenplay since 2001’s Wit, manages a nice balance between sauciness and lessons learned, which gives the story a sense of earned redemption that doesn’t feel mawkish or forced. Even when a snowstorm emerges magically in the end and literally washes away the messiness and disasters of life, paving the way for a splendid wedding, it feels like a perfectly natural occurrence.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2006 Universal Pictures