Nanny McPhee is easily one of the best children’s movies I’ve seen in a long time. Sure there are some good kid’s movies out there, but most of them I can’t watch with my child. There are some greats, Incredibles, Monster’s Inc., Toy Story for example. Hmmm… other than Pixar, who is making good films for families to watch together? And besides Pixar or Dreamworks or Disney or any of those other companies already aiming for the child market, who is making movies for kids that aren’t animated? This is where Nanny McPhee has raised a bar that most filmmakers have forgotten existed. Real actors, real children, real sets, oh my! Nanny McPhee manages to entertain both children and adults, teach lessons about behavior, encourages humor and a belief in magic, and never once underestimates the thinking ability of a young audience. I not only applaud this film for what it is, but also, for what it is not.
The movie begins as the 17th nanny of the Brown house flees in fear from the seven Brown children as they have yet again terrorized a nanny until they quit. Mr. Brown, of course, is overwhelmed by the recent loss of his wife and the care needed for his children that act out in need of attention, manners, and respect for others. The person he needs is Nanny McPhee. The children run wild and destroy as much as they can until McPhee (Emma Thompson) arrives on their doorstep and quickly attempts to set everything straight. Through a little bit of magic, “witchcraft” as the children call it, McPhee shows them they just may want to listen to her and begin to become civilized. The premise of the film then follows her quote to the children, “when you need me, but do not want me, I will stay, but when you want me, but no longer need me, I must go.”
What makes this film a wonderful success is the attention to detail and fearlessness of the material. The acting is top notch, not just from the adults in the film but also from the children. Everyone is fully in his or her character and regardless of the fact that Nanny McPhee is the title character, in no way does that mean she’s the only character to pay attention to. Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, and Imelda Staunton all flesh out the film and carry the strength of the story so there is never a dull or meaningless moment. The children also are all perfectly cast so each one has their own unique personalities that show up distinctly in the film.
Emma Thompson, also the screenwriter, doesn't dumb down the material for the sake of a younger audience. The father, Mr. Brown, is a makeup artist at a funeral parlor. There are dead bodies in the film, but it’s presented in a way that, to quote one of the commentaries, takes it “to the edge” but can still be humorous. Children can handle higher concepts and if nothing happens but flowers and fairies, they’re going to get bored very quickly. Nanny McPhee keeps the children on the edge and on their toes. When they try to trick her by faking sick to stay in bed, McPhee makes them truly sick and physically stuck in bed. What makes this film great is that where Mary Poppins would have sung the kids into happiness and smiles, Nanny McPhee gives them a taste of their own medicine and then makes them swallow it to see how their current behavior is unwelcome and how everything they do has consequences.
Finally, the use of color, light, set, scenery, and score all compliment the story and add to the fantasy and mysteriousness of the film. The colors inside the Brown house are vibrant and highly contrasting from one room to the next while in the outside world things look “normal.” There is also a strong use of color represented in the deceased mother’s chair. A deep hot pink that represents the loss of a strong feminine presence in the house but the design of the chair shows the gracefulness and softness that is also missing. The chair itself is treated as a character and almost always remains empty in respectful observance of the missing mother of the house. These are details children will understand and are the same reasons that a parent (or any adult) will stay through to the end and never lose interest. It’s been a long time since there has been a remarkable children’s film like Nanny McPhee and it will probably be a long time before we see another of this caliber.
The DVD release for Nanny McPhee is just as remarkable as the movie. There are tons of extras, interviews, set designs, makeup artists, deleted scenes, and even two excellent audio commentaries. Until now, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say plethora of extras and have it not be sarcastic, but here there really are a plethora of extras.
The first, “Casting the Children” shows some of the audition tapes and clues us into the fact that the children spent a lot of time together before filming even began so a bond would come across in the movie. They took the kids on trips together, let them spend time on the set, and have a good time so that when it came time to buckle down and work they could.
Next, “Village Life” shows the construction of the village as well as the house. All of the exterior shots were done on a three-acre plot of land in some empty field. The crew literally built the Brown house as well as the village shops and buildings. There are also deleted scenes and a gag reel. The deleted scenes are nice because there are quite a lot of them but there is a Play All feature. Not only that, but director Kirk Jones also introduces each deleted scene and explains what the scene was for and why it was cut.
The next set of extras are “Nanny McPhee Makeover” and “How Nanny McPhee Came To Be.” The first shows Emma Thompson getting her makeup put on but also talks about the transformations her character takes on during the timeline of the film. We see the stages of makeup she goes through and look at her costuming. The latter talks about the original Nurse Matilda stories that Nanny McPhee is based on by Christianna Brand. It gives insight into the life of Brand as well as talks about the differences between the sixty-year-old books and the modern film.
Finally, there are the two feature commentaries. The first includes Kirk Jones and six of the children. There’s not a lot here that you can take too seriously as you listen to Jones trying to control the children through all of their chewing and talking and having to go toilet, etc. Jones tries to steer them back around time and time again, but inevitably, they are children and will jibber jabber. Then, through all of that, at seven minutes in, one of them pipes up and asks if they have to stay through the whole movie. After only seven minutes! While there is some information Jones manages to get in there, most of this commentary is just funny. The kids probably had no real clue as to what they were doing in that room and that what they said was going to be recorded on the disc; including them mocking the very movie they are in.
The second commentary track has Emma Thompson (the screenwriter and Nanny herself) and Lindsay Doran (the producer) and is much more informative. The two have a great chemistry together and that comes across well as they talk continuously throughout. They have tons of information to give about all aspects of the film and the filming process and make it a great compliment to offset the Kirk Jones versus the Children track.
Nanny McPhee has a lot to offer and so much thought not only went into the movie but also into the disc as well. It’s amazing to see such diligence and attention given to make McPhee a complete package. Most often anymore people/parents will use the excuse “it’s a kids movie” and rationalize that they aren’t supposed to like a film their children adore. Nanny McPhee is truly magical enough to prove that should not be the case and that films can be made enjoyable for the whole family.