Widowed undertaker Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) is living in a perpetual state of exasperation due to the disorderly antics of his seven children, who spend their days trying to get rid of any nanny who attempts to discipline them. Worried about his financial health when his domineering Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) threatens to cut him off, Mr. Brown is desperate to find a wife and rebuild his life. Out of thin air comes Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), an intimidating, severely unpleasant looking woman who offers her services to the frustrated Mr. Brown. Looking to teach five simple lessons of conduct, Nanny McPhee soon makes a deeper impression in the lives of the children, encouraging them to help their father find a better life.
Adapted from the book series, "Nurse Matilda," "Nanny McPhee" (IMDb listing) has to compete with a busy media landscape that features insufferable English nannies on every television network openly criticizing parents for the awful ways they raise their awful children. It's about time somebody put some enchantment back into the profession, and "McPhee" is the appealing and visually vibrant family film diversion that provides the spark.
Nanny McPhee isn't quite Mary Poppins though; looking more like a mash-up between Julie Andrews and somebody John Waters would cast back in his prime Dreamland days. Pleasantly played by Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay), McPhee is the ultimate unyielding caretaker, using her mighty presence to startle the children into behaving, and if that doesn't work, one forceful slam of her magic cane will do the trick. Thompson plays the role very quietly, using the impressive makeup appliances to announce her arrival, and relying on the character's authoritative presence to snap her flock into compliance. There are some unexplained surreal qualities to McPhee, and the film makes the assumption that the mysteries will deepen the adoration of the character. That never comes to fruition, yet Thompson is in full command every time she's onscreen. She creates a wonderful mix of spooky authority and slight tenderness with her performance.
Director Kirk Jones (his first film since 1998's "Waking Ned Devine") keeps a fluffy tone to "McPhee," embracing both the slapstick and the Seussian qualities of the production, which uses sharp, exploding color contrasts for costumes and the exaggerated sets. This is a vividly painted motion picture, assisting the already magical nature of the story, along with creating a distinctive fantasy world that kids will envy. Jones does get carried away at times during the movie, pitching some of McPhee's madness with the children too close to piercing levels. Jones also gives in to a solitary flatulence joke, which is something this picture didn't need to get a response from the crowds.
Cast with immensely likeable performers (Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Thomas Sangster), living legends (Angela Lansbury, Derek Jacobi), and the downright lovable (Kelly Macdonald, playing Mr. Brown's scullery maid), "Nanny McPhee" is effortlessly light on its toes. Jones redeems his earlier sins with a magical finale, sending the film off with some tender wish-granting and, well, a flat-out cake fight. Trust me, you haven't lived until you see Angela Lansbury get walloped in the kisser with a gob of gooey green icing.
Filmfodder Grade: B+