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NANNY McPHEE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald, Imelda Saunton, Angela Langsbury, Thomas Sangster, Eliza Bennett
Director: Kirk Jones
Audio: English, Spanish, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Video: Color, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 99 minutes
Release Date: May 6, 2006

"There's no more nannies!  You've had the lot!"

Film ***

Nanny McPhee offers a familiar premise - a magical nanny arrives one day upon the doorsteps of a family in dire need of proper supervision for its children.  Through whimsical enchantments, an unusual personality, and absolute determination, this nanny turns the children around and restores love and order to an otherwise dysfunctional family.  No, this is neither a musical nor is it a Disney film.  Nanny McPhee is, in fact, based upon the "Nurse Matilda" children's books by Christianna Brand, nineteenth-century stories which pre-date this film's obvious cinematic cousin, Mary Poppins.

In the original tales, the Victorian family in question is overrun by dozens of children, so great in numbers in fact that quite a few of the children do not even have names.  In the film version (renamed Nanny McPhee to avoid confusion with the film adaptation of Ronald Dahl's children tale Matilda), this mass conglomeration has been reduced to a somewhat more manageable tally of seven children and one overwhelmed, widowed father.

Though a good man, Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) is at a complete loss over how to handle his seven motherless monsters.  His children absolutely delight in chasing away one prospective nanny after another.  To date, seventeen nannies have come and gone, and the record for shortest tenure is three days, eight hours, and forty-seven minutes.  Even the kindly maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), who dolts upon the not-quite-angels, cannot entirely control them.  Despite the schemes and connivances of his little tyrants, Mr. Brown remains determined to find a nanny who will be capable of helping him.

Enter, Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson)!  This mysterious nanny literally appears out of nowhere to an astonished Mr. Brown.  However, she is no sugar-plumed fairy.  She is an unshapely, uni-browed, wart-faced, cauliflower-eared, potato-nosed, frizzle-haired, snaggle-toothed hag.  But since Mr. Brown has either exhausted or scared away the town's supply of nannies, he has little choice except to employ Nanny McPhee and to hope for the best.

Magically, under Nanny McPhee's keen-eyed guidance, the children begin to learn their lessons and manners.  And as they do so, Nanny McPhee's appearance changes over time.  The superficiality of her surface ugliness fades away, revealing the true warmth and beauty of the soul within.

When she is needed but not wanted, she must stay.  When she is wanted but no longer really needed, then she must go.  That is her motto.  And so for as long as it takes the Browns to re-discover that in family unity lies happiness and strength, then so will Nanny McPhee remain.

In a sub-plot, Mr. Brown's lowly income is supplemented by his late wife's aunt, Lady Adelaide Stitch (Angela Langsbury), that he may continue to support the children.  However, she has finally delivered an ultimatum - Mr. Brown must marry within the month or she will withdraw her stipend.  After all, a motherly presence in the household is essential lest the children devolve completely into utter little ogres.  This, of course, sets a timetable of sorts for Nanny McPhee to complete her transformation of the children.  As to the ideal candidate to become the new Mrs. Brown, well, perhaps the lovely Evangeline, who secretly adores Mr. Brown, might suit that role perfectly!

Emma Thompson is very good in portraying Nanny McPhee (and decidedly less scatterbrained than as a certain wacky professor in various Harry Potter films).  As the exasperated Mr. Brown, Colin Firth is amusingly convincing as well (not surprising, considering that he truly excels at playing nervous and slightly insecure romantic leads).  In a sense, Firth has been playing variations of the D'Arcy character from Pride and Prejudice for the past decade, and Mr. Brown is no different.  Kelly Macdonald's presence as maid Evangeline only accentuates further this film's fairy-tale variant on the popular Jane Austen story.

However, inevitable comparisons must arise between Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins.  Both films share a light-hearted, magical ambiance.  Both films share humor and a common theme of the strength of family togetherness.  But Nanny McPhee is more of a fairy-tale focusing on the children and their relationship with their father than a catalyst for musical numbers.  Plus, being the newer film, it benefits quite immeasurably from the latest in visual effects and sound technology.  So, as with Mary Poppins before it, Nanny McPhee should appeal strongly to children who are young enough still to believe in magic.  And we are all never too old to enjoy a fun fairy-tale.

Video ****

Nanny McPhee boasts the same, over-the-top saturated rainbow colors as of Rogers & Hammerstein's Cinderella or Ella Enchanted.  This, however, is not necessarily a bad thing for a children's fantasy.  The film does look fantastic, and the transfer is quite pleasant enough.

Audio ****

Audio is available in English, Spanish, or French Dolby Digital 5.1.  All are equally worthwhile.  There is a nice dynamic spatial quality to the film's audio, despite it being just a children's tale.

Features ***

The disc opens with trailers for Over the Hedge, Pollyworld, Curious George, and Leave it to Beaver Seasons One and Two.

There are two feature commentary tracks.  The first one groups director Kirk Jones with the film's children actors.  Jones demonstrates wonderful patience and rapport with the children while also revealing secrets behind various "effects" shots.  The second commentary offers a jubilant and rather gleefully non-stop tea-time chat between Emma Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran about the film.  Clearly, this film was a labour of love for Emma Thompson.

There are four short featurettes. "Casting the Children" (11 min.) shows screen tests for the children, intercut with scenes from the film and a few words from the director and casting director.  Also shown are various orientation and bonding activities for the children. "Village Life" (3 min.) focuses on the exterior and interior set designs for the film.  We also get to see the time-lapsed construction of the large, three-acre exterior set. "Nanny McPhee Makeover" (5 min.) reveals sketches for Emma Thompson's makeup and shows the actress during the five stages of her makeup application. "How Nanny McPhee Came to Be" (7 min.) is really a promotional featurette describing the evolution of the film from three children's books, which themselves originated from stories told by Brand's great-grandfather.  Similarities and differences between the book and film are discussed.  There are also brief biographies for author Christianna Brand and her cousin Edward, who illustrated the three "Nurse Matilda" books.

The "Deleted Scenes and Alternate Opening" (12 min.) segment is worth watching.  The film's director offers a brief introduction to each scene.  The alternate opening highlights famous bad children over the course of history; Emma Thompson provides the voice-over (as opposed to the final cut's voiceover by Colin Firth).  One of the funniest bits here is a black & white re-edit of the film's mad tea party as a silent slapstick comedy.  The last deleted scene is actually a practical joke played by Colin Firth; it's good for a chuckle.

Lastly, there is a gag reel with nearly three minutes of bloopers and flubbed lines.

Summary:

Nanny McPhee is a charming children's fairy-tale.  Think of it as a non-musical fusion of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Pride and Prejudice, with perhaps a wicked twist of Lemony Snicket, too.

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