**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury
screenplay by Emma Thompson, based on the "Nurse Matilda" books by Christianna Brand
directed by Kirk Jones
by Walter Chaw Often as garish and shrill as it is magical and enchanting, Kirk Jones' Nanny McPhee throws into sharp relief the difficulty of describing the tightrope so artfully navigated by Babe: Pig in the City. In its favour, there are strong, fairytale-sinister undercurrents to it that feel authentic where the darkness of the slick Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events felt, on the whole, manufactured and arch, and the film finds its surest footing in an idea essential to children's entertainment: that every action has a consequence. The answer to the question of what, exactly, is Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), or what generator produces these Mary Poppinses like sexless, befrocked clergy attending wayward British moppets, is that Nanny McPhee is stuffy consequence personified--the element of parents and/or society that, often with something like a supernatural hand in the eyes of a child, embeds itself in a growing moral conscience. There's something grand and mysterious about these figures, and Jones allows Nanny the freedom to be as enigmatic, omniscient, and omnipotent as a superego on the wax.
Undertaker Brown (Colin Firth), mourning the recent passing of his wife by making her armchair a creepy totem to which he narrates his thoughts, has exhausted every nanny at the agency with his nasty yet adorable brood of seven when the mysterious Nanny McPhee materializes on his doorstep, snaggletoothed and carbuncular. Nanny quickly outlines several steps the children must follow in their forced civilization, while the usual subplots involving seeking out an appropriate mate for daddy dearest, sabotaging evil Austen aunts, and "freeing" (through the beautifaction of?) McPhee round out the British-ness of the fable between bouts of terminal cuteness and starchy intimidation. In the end, it's all Auf Wiedersehen, good night, into the Technicolor sunset, of course.
It says a lot more about the state of children's entertainment that a mildly diverting, almost apologetically barbed trifle like Nanny McPhee seems so much the fringe element. Thompson is infernal and appears to be having a blast with the screenplay she wrote using Christianna Brand's series of "Nurse Matilda" books as inspiration; Firth is workmanlike in the besotted romantic clod role he's made his stock and trade; and the children are saucer-eyed in reaction shots, sleep frocks, and Isles uniforms. Beyond its familiar efficiency, though, there's not a lot to be mined here besides the broad backhand that it at least has something to recommend it unlike most of the rest, as well as its justification of the nostalgic, old-man complaint that things were better once upon a time. (No matter that the "time" is somewhere in the eighteenth century with the Brothers Grimm.) Not a bad try, Nanny McPhee rattles when it mistakes cacophonous for whimsical kid's wonderlands, marking wide swaths of it as a distaff, if obviously vastly superior, version of The Cat in the Hat.
Universal ushers Nanny McPhee to DVD slipcovered and spit-shined in an aggressive 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that brings the film to eye-stabbing life. Although potential for colour bleed is ever-present, there's no trace of it in evidence in this exemplary presentation. Neither is there much in the way of edge-enhancement--and if flesh tones are a little on the pasty side, I'm willing to chalk that up to the cast being British. The DD 5.1 audio seems a little soft, especially with the amount of mayhem offered by the film proper. Emma Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran contribute a lively commentary track they kick off with the observation that the Universal logo is an Earth that spins majestically around to...the United States--and then proceed to offer production anecdotes both screen-specific and tangential. Nothing too revealing here, but the good-natured banter in which the two engage carries the track through a few lamentable passages of plot regurgitation. Nice job. Much less easy to endure is a second yakker featuring Jones and "the children" that mainly re-enlists the director to guide the kids through another performance. "Do you remember that day? Do you remember what you said?" Oh, Mylanta.
"Casting the Children" (12 mins.) intersperses Jones (who, it should be said, sounds almost identical to Thompson) talking about how not all children can act naturally with a bunch of screen tests. Pippa Hall, the casting agent, says she trolled various schools looking for kids to audition. Novel, I know. "Village Life" (4 mins.) has more of Jones chatting about what's a set vs. what's a location (and what's the difference for goodness sake?), while Ms. Doran returns to offer that they built sets because they couldn't find any places in the real world that lent themselves to this fantasy world. Michael Howells, the production designer, agrees; Jones agrees; we all agree.
"Nanny McPhee Makeover" (6 mins.) shows Thompson in the makeup chair. Chief revelations herein include the stunners that costume designers and makeup artists consult the director and the screenplay to create the appearance of a character. Jones individually introduces seven "Deleted Scenes" (13 mins.), offering brief rationales (variations on "it was too long") for each elision in the process. I rather liked the alternate opening, I must confess, with its archival footage of scared nannies through history culminating in Mr. Brown practising his gruesome trade by putting rouge on cadavers. A three-minute "Gag Reel" is kids giggling for three minutes, inexplicably intercut with excerpts from the finished film. "How Nanny McPhee Came to Be" (8 mins.) provides a nice overview of Christianna Brand's three-book series and how it was consolidated into this film. Fans of the former will be persuaded to better appreciate the latter, I'm sure. (For my part, I've been talked into ordering a copy of the trilogy for my toddler.) Startup trailers for Over the Hedge, Curious George, Pollyworld, and "Leave it to Beaver" The Complete First Season cap things off. Originally published: July 18, 2006.
99 minutes; PG; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Universal