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Nanny McPhee
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not too bad but not too good either."
3 stars

The 1970's are usually regarded as perhaps the last truly fertile period for American filmmaking but there was one area in which they were generally lax–the kiddie film. This was a period when the Disney studios were creatively moribund–the animation department was all but shut down and the live-action offering usually involved some combination of anthropomorphic Volkswagens, place-kicking mules and Don Knotts–and everyone else just ignored them. Sure, every once in a while, something like “Star Wars” or “The Muppet Movie” or “The Black Stallion” would come along and give us all a bit of hope but for the most part, kid films were indifferently conceived and sloppily put together pieces of product that were made only to score a few quick bucks off of weekend matinees. Faced with the likes of “Pete’s Dragon” or the limited-animation travesty of “Charlotte’s Web” (which had one great idea–giving Templeton the Rat the voice of Paul Lynde–and nothing else going for what should have been a slam-dunk classic), it is no wonder that, according to family legend, I tried to convince my parents to take me to see “Taxi Driver” at the tender age of five by pointing out that since Jodie Foster was in it, it would be suitable. (Needless to say, this gambit did not work.)

In the last couple of decades, however, there has been a definite renaissance in the quality and quantity of kid movies, no doubt spurred on by the resurgence of Disney’s animation department and the realization that even a half-way decent example could be an enormously profitable enterprise. Sure, there have been plenty of examples of soul-deadening crap but there have been plenty of delights as well–the “Babe” films, the “Harry Potter” films, “Chicken Run,” “Lemony Snicket,” “Wallace & Gromit” and the various Pixar offerings, to name just a few off the top of my head. Films like these have raised the bar for family entertainment considerably–so much so, in fact, that films that would have seemed a blessed relief from the likes of “The Shaggy D.A.” back in my day now come off as slightly strained when compared to the best of the current crop. Which brings me, finally, to “Nanny McPhee,” the latest film hoping for a piece of the pre-teen audience. It is bright and colorful, occasionally amusing and the kids in the audience that I saw it with seemed reasonably enchanted with it. However, while it is easily a step above the rather infantile likes of “Chicken Little” or “Hoodwinked,” it doesn’t come close to approaching the best that the genre has to offer.

Based on the “Nurse Matilda” books by Christianna Brand, the film opens as yet another nanny–number 17, I believe–flees in terror from the Brown house; more specifically, she is fleeing in terror from the seven monstrous Brown children who have convinced her that they have just eaten the baby. (They didn’t, though the infant is covered with a discomforting amount of what I hope was only brown gravy.) They’re bad, but they are bad for a reason–their mother is dead and Dad (Colin Firth) devotes so much time to working in the local funeral parlor and trying to find a new wife–an evil relative (Angela Lansbury) has threatened to cut him off and ruin him unless he gets married in a month–that he just doesn’t have the time to read to them or play cricket. Since the kids are such an undifferentiated bunch of noisy hooligans, I suppose you can hardly blame him for yearning for the peace and quiet of work.

Something must be done, of course, and that something arrives in the warty, snaggle-toothed presence of Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), who mysteriously arrives one night and vows to put the children in order by teaching them a series of five lessons. The kids try to outwit her–instead of getting up bright and early, they paint dots on their faces and claim the measles–but she is too smart for such tricks–she clanks her magic walking stick and really gives them both the measles and a spoonful of medicine that no amount of sugar could possible make palatable. Before long, of course, all the little cretins learn to stand up straight, wash their faces and behave, just in time to try to prevent Dad from marrying a vile shrew (Celia Imrie) when he should be marrying the sweet scullery maid (Kelly MacDonald) who has loved him and the kids all along.

Essentially, “Nanny McPhee” is one more stab at the magical nanny genre that previously gave us the likes of “Mary Poppins” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” with the musical numbers being replaced with scenes of people being splattered in the face with all sorts of goo–a lateral move at best, if you ask me. Other than that, there isn’t much of a difference between then and now–the kids act awful, the nanny drops a couple of magical lessons and the wee ones suddenly turn into well-scrubbed Stepford children. As a kid, I must confess that I never really mustered much enthusiasm for such films–they always seemed to suggest that any form of youthful exuberance was something to be eradicated if you wanted to be considered a Good Boy or Girl–and I found myself feeling the same way today. Part of the problem may be the fact that the kids are both singularly unpleasant–there is a line between youthful exuberance and criminal psychosis and I think hog-tying a cook and putting the baby on a platter of gravy trips over that line fairly definitively–and singularly uninteresting; there wasn’t a single moment where I found myself caring about whether these little thugs were separated from each other or not. I may not know much about kiddie films but I am fairly certain that I shouldn’t be rooting for the little brats to be sent to the workhouse by then end of the first reel. Maybe my problem is that I always prefer it when the heroes and heroines of kid stories rely on their wits and intelligence to save the day instead on wacky stunts and pratfalls.

And yet, while the film is generally kind of useless, “Nanny McPhee” does have its momentary charms, most of them coming from Emma Thompson’s contributions as both star and screenwriter. Regarding the former, she pulls off the tasks of being funny without being overly goofy and being touching without getting too cloying. (I probably could have lived without the aggressively over-the-top make-up job.) As for the screenplay, I did like how it stubbornly maintained a steadfast English tone instead of trying to smooth those edges out in order to appeal to a wider audience–I don’t know whether Thompson invented the touch of a father-son discussion occurring in the back room of a funeral parlor or if it came from the book, but it adds a nicely jaundiced touch that would have been thrown out instantly if it had been produced in America.
Angela Lansbury is also pretty funny in her brief turn as the evil matriarch–I’m not sure whether she was cast as a sly homage to her role in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” or as a sly homage to her role in “The Manchirian Candidate.” And while she doesn’t really have much to do here other than count the moments until she can step in for the happy ending, I must confess that any opportunity to see Kelly MacDonald on the big screen is a welcome thing indeed.

Despite such minor pleasures, I still can’t quite work myself around to recommending “Nanny McPhee” to anyone who doesn’t have an obligation to see every family-oriented film that comes down the pike. As for the rest of you, I will say that the little kids at the screening I attended seemed to be reasonably entertained–few were talking or crying or running up and down the aisles–and I would take its puckish charms over the lugubrious likes of “The Chronicles of Narnia” any day of the week. However, I suspect that the majority of those in the audience whose age has reached double digits is likely to find themselves checking their watches several times while waiting for the thing to finally come to its goopy end.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13774&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/27/06 00:07:53
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User Comments

7/27/19 Suzanne The darker elements enhance the charming story. 4 stars
3/18/16 Charles Tatum A lovely little story 4 stars
12/25/12 dr.lao Mary Poppins as re-written by psychopaths 1 stars
3/09/11 L T Worms Emma Thompson is now being trusted to bring a new MY FAIR LADY to the screen. Eh gads! 1 stars
9/22/10 I. Rich U J Lessing's review spot on plus once again Colin Firth stinks. 1 stars
8/10/10 Carol Miles This pc stinks, and so do all the seasoned thespians. 1 stars
3/22/08 Michelle Lau This film is kinda cool! 4 stars
4/18/07 Stevo UK Nanny Mcflop would be a better title for this rubbish. 2 stars
9/01/06 Chad Thomas Emma Thompson is great! 4 stars
8/19/06 Beau Great acting, but boring on-going scenes with a fantasy theme to it.overall average 3 stars
8/16/06 Louise Great fun, a little crazy, with a heart and soul. I was smiling at the end! 5 stars
7/27/06 Lizzie dazzling 5 stars
6/04/06 Jon Good, but could have been funnier... 4 stars
5/20/06 BoyInTheDesignerBubble Twisted enough to keep adults interested. 4 stars
5/11/06 Marcia Zargrassi Mary Poppins meets Tales From The Darkside meets Zombie Deerest meets Parent Crap. 2 stars
5/02/06 Ashley Hinz Touching film with a message. Emma sells it. 5 stars
2/22/06 bobbi If you don't take the plot seriously, it is a very enjoyable and clever film 4 stars
1/29/06 katsat Great for anyone with a sentimental streak and an appreciation for quirky fun (like me). 5 stars
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  27-Jan-2006 (PG)
  DVD: 09-May-2006



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