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Nanny McPhee
Reviewed by Martin Thomas, © 2006

Format: Movie
By:   Kirk Jones (director)
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   January 27, 2006
Review Date:   January 31, 2006
Audience Rating:   PG
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

Why me, Nanny McPhee?

Why is it my task to review your movie? I don't even like fairytale movies. I mean, I dig the Harry Potters and all — quite a bit, actually — but the rest? I was bored halfway through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events? It started out focused on those seemingly interesting Baudelaire children but quickly devolved into little more than yet another vehicle for celebrity cameos and Jim Carrey's scenery chewing.

Even "adult" fairytales like Joe Versus the Volcano and Pretty Woman I find to be insipid if not outright insulting.

So, you see my dilemma, Nanny McPhee. I just don't want to be unfair to you because . . . well, frankly, you scare me.

The movie Nanny McPhee (based on the series of "Nurse Matilda" books from the 1960s) introduces us to Mr. Cedric Brown (Colin Firth), a befuddled widower with a brood of evil children. Okay, maybe not "evil, per se, but wretchedly unruly for sure. Their latest prank — convincingly fabricating a supper in which the main course is roasted baby — has chased off the last nanny in town.

Watching such limp-wristed dads "golly gee" and "oh dear" their way through not dealing with their kid's destructive behavior — not so much a s a raised voice (especially that numbnuts Steve Martin in those Cheaper By The Dozen movies) — makes my blood boil. As an African-American father of two, descended from a long line of black, Negro, colored and African fathers who were all deacons in the church of "Whip his ass!", I find that almost offensive. Label it a "culture discrepancy" if you like.

As I sat in the theater watching Mr. Brown's children proceed to trash their own kitchen and hogtie the cook I found my fingers absently reaching to undo my own belt and administer some justice. . . .

No need.

Without solicitation, the mysterious, black-garbed Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) appears and the air goes still. She is a commanding presence and with her bulbous nose, grape-sized warts, unibrow and errant, protruding front tooth, she's quite hideous — even by British standards. She speaks softly and carries a big stick. And I mean a really BIG magical walking stick that conceivably could've been wrenched from the hands of a dying Gandalf the Grey.

You almost cringe as the children first try to ignore then defy her — especially if you've ever suffered the indignity of being dispatched to fetch a switch from a tree that was to be used in your own beating, and thus instinctively have a certain fear/respect for all wielded sticks.

Nanny McPhee is a Bizarro Mary Poppins with a dark, almost sinister streak that more than matches the kid's. There's little doubt who'll win this contest of wills, but the forecast for the Brown children's immediate future is PAIN. On the road to submission for them it gets a lot worse before it gets better.

To quote James Brown: "Papa don't take no mess!"

BUT, it does get better. Eventually it becomes clear that Nanny McPhee's agenda consists of not only whipping the children into shape and installing a backbone into Mr. Brown so he can stand up to his controlling Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), but mainly to get this family to piece itself back together. It's everything you would expect from a movie British nanny. (In Amercian movies the job of helping white people get their lives back on track usually falls to magical and sassy Negroes like Bagger Vance and Queen Latifah.)

The comedic performances in Nanny McPhee are top notch from the entire cast. Even the child actors are much better than what I've come to accept (again, see Narnia). But I just cannot say enough about how much I loved Angela Lansbury, who returns to the big screen after a 20-year absence. She's like a living Tim Burton character as the snobbish, overbearing Great Aunt who lords her riches and title over everyone. She's so deliciously over the top and I couldn't get enough of her all-too-brief performance. The screen lit up every time she came on.

Of course special kudos go to Emma Thompson, who not only plays the title character but wrote the screenplay. It's smart, hilarious, touching and poignant. It speaks to the kids and more than nods to the adults. Once you get past all the hocus pocus, life lessons, pie fights and the talking horse, it's really a story of a family dealing with grief and learning not to wallow in personal pain so they can heal together. Most of it comes down to simply listening to each other.

And even though it acknowledges other fairytales (practically making fun of them), at the end of the day it's still a fairytale itself. As such it's subject to all the usual trappings: Love conquers all; the bad guys get humiliated, the musical score is too much and the special effects are kinda on the cheap.

Still, the happy ending is well earned and not quite as cliched as I expected. Throughout the movie one of Nanny McPhee's oft-repeated taglines is:

"When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. When you want me, but do not need me, then I have to go."

And when that time comes, there is no extended, cloying plea for her to stay. It's as if everyone in the film and the audience is satisfied that her work here is indeed done.

On the whole I found the movie to be somewhat moving and inspiring.

How inspiring, you ask?

Well, enough to spur me to try to get a jump on the next Hollywood trend. My next project is to take some of these movies based on classic British literary fairytales and adapt them as Afro-centric musicals, a la Tyler Perry.

You feel me?

I figure I'll start with Nanny McPhee. Right now my working title is Siddown, Boy! 'Fore I Put This Stick On Yo'Ass!

Eh, it's a work in progress. I just gotta get my people to talk to James Brown's people. . . .

Normally, we’d fill this space with some vaguely insulting biographical information about RevSF contributor Martin Thomas, but we don’t want him to take us over his knee and tan our hides.

 
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