RetroReviews #26: Nanny McPhee (2005)




When the most memorable part of a movie is the stylishly done closing credits sequence (which should have been used for the opening credits but “modern” movies avoid that), it’s not a good sign. That was my reaction to watching Nanny McPhee. It’s not a bad movie, just one that seemed bland and forgettable. The premise sounded fine to me: a family film about the “anti-Mary Poppins” – an absolutely horrible witch-like caretaker – getting the world’s most unruly children to behave. The execution, unfortunately, left much to be desired.

Emma Thompson stars as the title character, and she’s quite homely when she first appears, but not quite the “hideous and revolting” effect that the film wants to evoke in the audience (mostly she just has some ugly moles and nasty buck teeth.) The film makes it clear from the start that “Nanny McPhee” has some sort of magic powers by tapping her cane, and the plot device of the movie is introduced early on – as the children become better mannered and behaved, she slowly transforms into a less ugly women, until she’s “normal” attractive woman at the end of the story. Once the plot device is in place, the film is pretty much on autopilot for the remainder of the movie, and we can figure out what is going to unfold throughout the rest of the movie.

Colin Firth co-stars with Thompson, as the children’s father, and he seems to be on loan from his usual set of British romance movies. He’s also drab in this movie, and hires the mysterious Nanny McPhee as a last resort when the children have scared away 17 previous nannies. Like Nanny McPhee, the film conveys the idea that the children are completely uncontrollable sadistic little monsters, but the actual stuff we see on screen doesn’t quite have that punch. Brats, yes. The most horrible misbehaved children I’ve ever seen in my life, no.

Nanny McPhee works as a movie – there’s no plotholes or anything and it all flows nicely and tells its story from point A to point B, and the special effects service the film. The main problem is I felt this type of story has been told much better in numerous other films – fantasy stories or not. 10 minutes of Robin Williams in drag as Mrs. Doubtfire was more entertaining than everything in Nanny McPhee combined. And since this is supposed to be a “zany comedy” and not a quite melodrama, I thought that Nanny McPhee simply failed to deliver what we expected from the premise, though it certainly tries hard. The reverse Mary Poppins twist of making her an anti-hero instead of a lovable charming lady should have been far more effective than it was. Even a B-movie like “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” has a more effective character for a ruthless and utterly evil hag babysitter, and she’s only in the film for 10 minutes.

As with my previous movies, this is another example where the film industry and I ended up with opposite conclusions. Nanny McPhee is okay to sit through, but nothing grabbed me and made me want to watch a sequel with the same characters. Of course, they did indeed end up doing a sequel to Nanny McPhee (with Emma Thompson reprising the role), and two more films are in the works. Like Paranormal Activity, one film was enough for me. I’m fine with the old charming British “magical nanny” story, but I’ve seen it before and it was better the first time around.

** out of ****


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