Nanny McPhee

Rating:

Mary Poppins, what a hairy wart you have!

Main Cast: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth

Director: Kirk Jones

I’m a big fan of fluffy magic. The kind that doesn’t hurt anyone, or involve elaborate spells or incantations. Benign, fun magic that can be had with the twitch of a nose or the wave of a hand….or even the thump of a walking stick. Nanny McPhee magic! Yes, I brought this film into the house under the pretense of getting a movie to watch with the kids – but what I really wanted was a good dose of fluffy magic. And I got it, much to my delight and amusement.

Poor Mr. Brown. He’s a widower with a passel of rowdy children. He works hard at the mortuary each day, but never really makes enough money to support his brood. Plus, he can’t seem to keep a nanny. They all flee from the frightful terror that is his children. And no one can blame them, for the children are indeed frightfully naughty. They’re angry at their father, grieving for their mother and generally most unpleasant.

But they are no match for Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson). Arriving auspiciously (one could even say suspiciously) at a moment of great need, Nanny McPhee sets out to instill some basic behaviors that the children seem not to have mastered. The children, of course, hate her on sight (and quite a sight she is, hairy warts and all). What they don’t know is that Nanny McPhee isn’t like all the rest. She has a trick or three up her sleeve – or under her voluminous cloak.

Even from just a short description, it’s very clear that Nanny McPhee has very little to offer in the way of original subject matter. A splash of Mary Poppins, a dash of The Sound of Music, a smidge of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, they’re all here. And I have to be completely honest…..I couldn’t possibly care less. For Nanny McPhee takes all these familiar elements, picks them up, dusts them off and makes them new and special all over again. Written by Emma Thompson (adapted from a series of children’s books by Christianna Brand), the story takes us over all that familiar territory with so much charm and heart and sparkle that it simply doesn’t matter that we’ve been here before.

The very first thing that pops out of the screen is the absolutely gorgeous, color saturated set design and photography. Set in some sort of anonymous English village of the past, everything is filled with bright, vibrant tones – giving the film a feeling of unreality from the very start that makes accepting all that will come to pass so very simple. It isn’t hard to put our disbelief on the shelf for a fairy tale to begin with, and when said fairy tale looks as if it’s been painted by a manic artist with only the most joyful of colors on his palette, it’s like sinking into the pages of a storybook. The beautiful, cluttered, gloriously disheveled house and grounds set the perfect stage for our magical nanny.

Our nanny, on the other hand, is not quite so beautiful. Emma Thompson is a lovely woman – unless she’s Nanny McPhee, who is really ridiculously unattractive. Warts and wigs and prosthetic nose have all turned lovely Emma into someone quite foreboding. With her stern countenance, Thompson’s Nanny McPhee is something of a frightening sight – for one particular group of very naughty children. For us, not so much. The make-up is so wonderful, so over the top ugly, that Nanny McPhee fits right into this fairy tale world of exaggerations.

Thompson is marvelous fun. Whether she’s managed to morph all that make-up into a scowl or a hint of a smile, she’s always enigmatic. She says very little, really, but what she does say always has some import. It’s vital for all little naughty children to listen closely to Nanny McPhee, for she possesses not only great wisdom, but little patience for those who fail to heed her words. The effects used to create her magic are at once as over the top as the setting and as subdued as Nanny McPhee herself. A simple thump of her walking stick, a few sparkles and a little twinkling music herald all sorts of gleeful mayhem. The effects fit perfectly into the tone of the film. They aren’t subtle at all, but there’s no showing off to be seen (well, maybe a little……). They do exactly what needs to be done, much like Nanny McPhee herself.

Colin Firth plays the muddled, bumbling Mr. Brown with fine form. Lacking the gruffness of the men in The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins, Mr. Brown is far more immediately likable. He tries, he really does, but his grief and distraction over the family finances prevent him from paying his children the attention they desperately need. Firth is good at playing befuddled, and he doesn’t disappoint here. The child actors are of no great import. There are so many, it’s nearly impossible to keep track. The exception is Thomas Sangster as Simon, the eldest boy, the naughtiest child and the one most in need of his father – as well as Nanny McPhee. Sangster puts on a nice little showing of defiant determination, taking on Nanny McPhee with the notion that he has the upper hand. He’s not particularly likable in the beginning, and the young actor does an admirable job of redeeming the character as the movie progresses.

The other performances of note come in the form of marvelous British actors in roles that must have been terrific fun. Angela Lansbury as the curmudgeonly Aunt Adelaide, with delicious grumpy-old-lady make-up, Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow as the merry morticians who employ Mr. Brown, and Celia Imrie. Oh my, Celia Imrie as Mrs. Quickly, who Mr. Brown is set to marry in order to iron out those financial problems. She’s absolutely hysterical with her clown-like clothes and her devilishly stereotypical evil stepmother guise. She’s great fun to watch – she’s enchanting in her foulness.

A wonderful combination of performances, set design, special effects and a simple yet timeless fairy tale screenplay make Nanny McPhee one of the best children’s movies I’ve seen in ages. Emma Thompson’s talent seems to know no bounds, she’s delicious as Nanny McPhee and it’s her adaptation of the children’s stories the makes the core of the film work. Director Kirk Jones and cinematographer Henry Braham bring her vision to life and make us truly understand why, “The one you need is Nanny McPhee”. Even without the slightest hint of an original story off of which to grow, this fluffy magic is delightful from beginning to end.

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