Nanny McPhee (United Kingdom, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Nanny McPhee is an excellent movie… if you're a seven-year old girl. That's less a negative evaluation than it is a statement of fact. This isn't a "family film;" it's a "children's film." What's more, it's for girls who are old enough to understand the basics of reading and writing, but not old enough to be interested in boys. That's a small target audience for a motion picture, but if you have a child that fits the above description, you could find a worse way to entertain them than Nanny McPhee. Just don't expect to get the same level of enjoyment out of the experience as your offspring. Despite the superb cast, comprised of A-level British actors, the script offers nothing remotely adult. It's a straightforward fairy tale, told without a hint of guile or cynicism. And there are none of the oh-so-popular elements that go over the head of the youngsters to score points with older viewers. Nanny McPhee is sweet and endearing, but it's neither smart nor witty. And it is predictable to a fault. 15 minutes into the movie, not only will you guess the ending, but you will recognize every step that leads to the ending. Watching Nanny McPhee for the first time is like watching many other movies for the second time.

For adults, the acting almost saves the film. On screen, we have the likes of Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Angela Lansbury, Derek Jacobi, Imelda Staunton, and Kelly Macdonald. That's an abundance of talent for something so thin. And none of the performers do bad jobs, either, although most are called upon to play caricatures. The problem is either Emma Thompson's screenplay or the source material upon which she based it, Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books. (Not being familiar with the latter, I'm not in a position to judge.) The film's director is Kirk Jones, whose lone previous feature was the delightful Waking Ned Devine. The magic of that film is absent here. Then again, maybe everyone realized they were making a movie for seven-year old girls. In that case, they have succeeded. It's the rest of us who are left with an unsatisfactory experience. (It's probably not a coincidence that Emma Thompson's daughter turns seven this year.)

The story, which borrow liberally from a library of established fairy tales (most notably "Cinderella"), features the widower Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) in a quandary about what to do with his seven misbehaving children. Led by Simon (Thomas Sangster), the eldest and the ringleader, they have a history of driving away nannies. Outside of their father, only one other loves the children: Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), the scullery maid. Enter Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), a crone of a witch who believes she can restore order to the Brown household. She works by a single rule, which she tells the children: "When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. When you want me, but do not need me, then I have to go." There are more complications in Cedric's life than the unruliness of his offspring. Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who provides Cedric with enough money to support his family, has decreed that he must marry again within a month. Ignoring Evangeline, the perfect candidate under his roof (she is, after all, a scullery maid), he makes a pact with the rapacious Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie), who bears a striking resemblance to an unsavory breed known as the Wicked Stepmother.

Colin Firth plays Cedric as the most impotent man on Earth, an individual who managed to mature into adulthood without a fully formed backbone. Emma Thompson makes sure we know that Nanny McPhee is made of sterner stuff. She looks like the Wicked Witch of the West (without the greenish cast to her skin), although her appearance improves with each step forward made by the children. She's no Mary Poppins. When she delivers a dose of an anti-measles tonic, she does not sing, "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Kelly Macdonald is as delightful as ever - she's this movie's Cinderella. Angela Lansbury, largely unrecognizable to Murder, She Wrote fans under the makeup, plays Aunt Adelaide as a nearsighted version of Pride & Prejudice's Lady Catherine de Bourg. Finally, there are the seven children, who get us to the point where we despise them before coming to sympathize with them.

Nanny McPhee is perfect for little girls. There's no bad language or violence. There's nothing close to resembling a sexual comment or innuendo. There's true love, the princess factor, and a gloriously over-the-top finale that features a combination of a white wedding and a food fight. The good guys are rewarded and the best guys get their just desserts. As an adult, however, I couldn't help but thinking that this was a missed opportunity, and a little fracturing of the fairy tale (á là Shrek, for example) would have made the experience less tiresome. But that's not where Nanny McPhee's heart is. The result is a surprisingly bland movie that has its occasional pleasures, small though they may be.

Nanny McPhee (United Kingdom, 2005)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2006-01-27
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1