In Nanny McPhee Emma Thompson tries to break the forty-year stranglehold held on nanny related entertainment by Marry Poppins with her own take on the magical babysitter genre. Emma's entry owes a big debt to Julie Andrews, but differentiates itself just enough to avoid being labeled a blatant Nanny Poppins knockoff.
The seven Brown children are a horrible lot. They've just run off their 17th nanny by convincing her they ate the baby, and later tonight they'll tie up the cook and demolish her kitchen. Their ineffective single father (Colin Firth) is distraught. He's gone through every governess in town, there's no one left to watch his wild kids. To make matters worse, dear old Dad has one month to find a new bride, or Great Aunt Adelaide will cut their family out of her fortune, leaving them in the poorhouse and forcing pops to sell the kids into slave labor. I guess selling his lavish mansion and laying off a few of their servants just isn't an option.
That's when there's a knock at the door. It's Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), a horrible looking woman covered in warts and sporting one unfortunately placed snaggletooth. She offers her services to Mr. Brown as a kiddie caretaker, and since he's desperate, he accepts. Nanny McPhee goes to work setting things right around the Brown house. She pounds her knobby old cane on the floor and semi-magical things seem to happen. She has five lessons to teach the children Brown, and when she's done they'll probably have learned a more besides. "When you need me but don't want me, I will stay," she says, "but when you want me and don't need me, I must go."
The kids of course don't want her, and do their best to run her off. But their resentment is short lived, and soon replaced by fear. Nanny McPhee tortures the Brown children into behaving. Her teaching method involves things like forcing them to drop their baby brother in a pot of boiling water, or giving them the measles as punishment for their misdeeds. McPhee's interaction with the Brown children is really rather humdrum, and during one of her magical teaching moments I heard the little boy sitting behind me ask his mother, "when is this going to be over?" We've got another hour to go kid.
Weirdly enough, it is as a cartoony romance movie that McPhee comes closest to finding its footing. The family's scullery maid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald) is desperately in love with Mr. Brown, though because of her station she keeps those feelings to herself. Mr. Brown for his part may have feelings for her, but if he does that pesky class system is probably in the way again. Kelly Macdonald, whom you may remember as Peter Pan in Finding Neverland, does wonderful work as Evangeline. To me she's the real heart of this film, and the only character anyone in the audience is likely to be particularly interested in. Mr. Brown's awkward quest for a bride and Evangeline's quietly proper longing keep McPhee's heart beating even when some of the Nanny's shtick is dead on arrival.
The movie could have been improved with some of Mary Poppins' dancing penguins and maybe a song or two, but that's not a direction Nanny McPhee is interested in going. The production design is pretty and despite the impatience of the little boy behind me, that's probably enough to make it passable way to entertain your kids on a weekend. In some ways, parents may find more to enjoy in it than kids, since the little buggers are probably only there for the magic, of which there's not nearly enough.