A surprisingly adept kiddie film, “Nanny McPhee” may not be a family film winner like Pixar or Aardman Animations can churn out, nevertheless as tyke-fare goes this “Mary Poppins”-esque adventure is an interesting and more enjoyable vehicle than you might expect.
With its cluttered cubism-inspired production design, flamboyantly wild costumes and luridly coloured cinematography, the film has a storybook look that’s very alive and leaps off the screen in its silliness. Yet that’s combined with a very English sense of restraint as visual effects are kept to a minimum and there’s less reliance on wild slapstick or crass pop culture references than many of its American counterparts.
These contrasts are also visible in the tone of Emma Thompson’s script and Christianna Brand’s story which harkens back to the Roald Dahl mold of sugar-enfused children’s stories with a slightly sour inner coating to add a darker edge that makes the saccharine tolerable. For all the moments of children being taught moral lessons and life-affirming actions, there’s other bits of whimsy ranging from the lightly cheeky to actual moments of suspense such as McPhee’s first meeting of the children in which she nearly boils the family’s baby alive.
Kirk Jones’s helming is fast, efficient and never gets bogged down even when the sentimentality is turned up to teeth rotting sweetness. At times the film certainly goes overboard in its mixture of slapstick, pantomime and gaudiness but they help the moments of smart mature family filmmaking stand out all the more. Even Thompson’s make-up, which looks utterly ridiculous on first glance (especially her elongated tooth), has a purpose in its wildness and becomes one of the more interesting ideas shown in the film.
Performances, whilst far from the strongest work these talents have done, is nevertheless enjoyably vigorous. Colin Firth as the hopelessly befuddled parent, Angela Lansbury as the prim and proper countess/matriach, Celia Imrie as a gaudy bodice-bursting widow, and both Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow as Firth’s workmates, all deliver deliciously wild turns that even adults won’t be able to help but crack a smile over. Even the child actors, normally the most annoying of the sort in these films, come out of the action alright even if they all sound a little too well spoken for their ages.
Like the script, Thompson herself is an interesting figure of duality. With her over the top appearance, one would worry that she would take the performance to a similarly silly level. Yet she keeps her Nanny McPhee character very cool and collected throughout – rarely raising her voice or doing anything more stern than a cool stare or a whack of her cane on the floor. Whilst there’s some standard for the course subplots of neglectful parenting, there’s also an enjoyable understated mis-matched love affair between Firth and scullery maid Evangeline (a very strong Kelly Macdonald).
The film does dissolve into silliness towards the end (the wedding includes hot pink-dyed lambs and family members dressed as lime-green little Bo Peeps) with some formulaic turns and sadly disappointingly dumb slapstick. Though whilst originality isn’t one of the film’s strong suits, it nevertheless works beautifully for its young and mostly femake demographic. Even adults will have a few laughs with its life-affirming enthusiasm. Cute, very mildly twisted, and fun.