U.S. Release Date: January 27, 2006
Distributor: Universal
Director: Kirk Jones
Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Cast: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, Imelda Staunton
Running Time: 1 hour and 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (rude humor, some language and mild thematic elements.)

Emma Thompson Brightens Family Formula
by Scott Holleran

Writer and actress Emma Thompson does what she can in the title role of the children's fairy tale Nanny McPhee, a puff piece which Miss Thompson adapted from the Nurse Matilda books. The movie, directed by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), tries too hard, and it is not the bucket of fun it strives to be, but enough plot and sturdy characters give it a boost.

Colin Firth plays an overworked widower with seven kids—whom you can tell apart—a rich, dowdy aunt (Angela Lansbury) and a household staff that includes a nanny—for as long as one can survive the children. The clever kids drive each governess off the grounds.

With nanny after nanny, their tactics work, until McPhee, a hideous creature with two warts and a protruding front tooth, waddles into toddler town. She magically appears at their doorstep to teach the tykes a lesson—five to be precise—outwitting the kids like an ugly, good witch with a bad overbite.

When the kids deceive her, nanny McPhee stomps her cane, rendering them immobile, and relatively harmless mayhem ensues. The visual style is over the top in a literary sense that doesn't always translate to the screen. When Miss Lansbury's stuffy old hag trots up to the house, threatening to cut off the family's inheritance and ready to seize one of the girls—not, as she sniffs, "one of those other things," a great line—we're meant to believe she'd mistake a winking donkey for one of the daughters.

While the kids, especially the defiant oldest child, catch on to the benefits of good behavior, the movie is uneven. Firth's dad fumbles, trying to cope with parenthood and pining for a comely servant (Kelly Macdonald) and the formulaic shenanigans drop and roll one after another.

Watchful McPhee is never far from the children, who play variously crude pranks on the cook (Vera Drake's Imelda Staunton) and a vile woman at the center of the story's mild conflict (Celia Imrie), whom the father must marry or lose the monthly stipend. Tough but tender McPhee is upstaged by the frightful tart and her quivering bosom, and the picture lulls itself to sleep with a strand of stand-alone hijinks, jokes and antics.

Miss Thompson's scenes are too short, and what remains is overwhelmed by the outlandishness. Though a little bit of this and that adds up to way too much and a food fight ruins the fairy princess feeling, a happy ending comes in capably, if predictably, on cue.

Miss Thompson, whose eyes say as much as they did in Much Ado About Nothing, exits gracefully as a nanny who—between long, silly outbursts—at one point encourages a child to think. That's not saying much in a picture like Nanny McPhee, which rises above the usual mindless children's tripe.

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