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Nanny McPhee

Universal // PG // May 9, 2006
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Phil Bacharach | posted May 17, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Emma Thompson wins the Actress without Ego Award (OK, I made up the honor, but you get the idea). Not many actresses would park themselves in front of a computer keyboard and craft for themselves a role that calls for being hideously ugly. But Thompson does just that. As the screenwriter and star of Nanny McPhee, Thompson allows herself to disappear under layers of prosthetics and makeup to become the titular character, a magic-wielding nanny whose unfortunate mug boasts two hairy warts, a melon of a nose, one hefty eyebrow and a bucktooth that drapes over her lower lip.

Such cinematic ugliness is in service of a greater good. Based on Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" children's book series of the 1960s and early '70s, Nanny McPhee is a fairytale sure to appeal to both kids and adults.

Set in Victorian England (albeit with a splash of psychedelic sense and sensibility), the plot concerns blundering widower Cedric Brown (Colin Firth, cast against type) and his seven very naughty children. Calling this brood unruly is a little like saying that Charles Manson has anger-management issues. The kids -- the oldest of whom appears to be about 10 and the youngest being a baby -- begin our story having successfully scared off the 17th nanny to be hired by Mr. Brown. Evidently, the children, led by young Simon (Thomas Sangster), have managed to make the nanny think they'd eaten the youngest sibling.

What the Brown children don't know is that their father is in danger of losing his family. Poor Mr. Brown has been receiving financial help from his late wife's wealthy Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), but now she has given him an ultimatum; he must remarry in 30 days or she will cut off his allowance, all but dooming the children to life in the workhouse.

For Cedric Brown, who works as a makeup artist in a funeral home, options are limited. Although he obviously has romantic feelings for his pretty scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), Mr. Brown pins his marriage hopes on Mrs. Quickly (Celia Imrie), a mean-spirited harpy who has two elaborately-dyed sheep.

Into this troubled home comes Nanny McPhee. Although the woman describes herself as a "government nanny," it soon becomes apparent that she is more of a witch -- albeit a good one. With a tap of her walking stick against the floor, the mysterious nanny conjures spells that help teach the children lessons of civility while also restoring some spark to Mr. Brown's hapless life.

The cast is game for this bit of family-friendly whimsy. Thompson is a particular standout, with Lansbury and Sangster notable in supporting roles.

But the most indelible performance comes from the film's marvelous visual flair. The team of director Kirk Jones, cinematographer Henry Braham, production designer Michael Howells and art designer Lynne Huitson slathers this fairytale world in a dazzling array of Day-Glo colors, an expanse of sumptuous blues, greens and yellows that practically drip from the screen.

And yet, perhaps it is Nanny McPhee's visual invention that overwhelms its heart. Director Jones keeps a lot of balls up in the air -- Nanny McPhee, seven mischievous children, a love story, a delightfully wistful aesthetic -- but, in the end, the filmmakers might be juggling more than they need. Nanny McPhee is a pleasant trifle. It is cute, well-intentioned and eminently watchable, but lacking a degree of depth that could lift it to greatness.

The DVD

The Video:

The DVD's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen is of excellent quality, preserving the movie's eye-popping color scheme. In a few spots the images appear a little soft, but it appears to be by design.

The Audio:

In Dolby Digital 5.1, the audio track -- which is available in English, French and Spanish -- is clean and crisp. No noticeable flaws. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.

Extras:

The DVD manufacturers pack a superb rundown of bonus features that really add to the viewer's appreciation of the movie.

Casting the Children is an informative, 11-minute, 30-second featurette that covers the casting search for the Brown rugrats. Director Kirk Jones and others explain the travails of finding young actors who were right for the parts but did not have too theatrical of a background.

At nearly four minutes, Village Life is a mildly interesting featurette about how the filmmakers constructed from scratch the movie's fictitious village.

Nanny McPhee Makeover follows Emma Thompson's transformation to the bucktoothed, wart-laden nanny with the curious walking stick. The five-minute, 30-second featurette notes that the makeup artists had the difficult balancing act of making the character scary without being too scary for the youngest viewers.

There are seven deleted scenes of varying interest. To his credit, Kirk Jones introduces the scenes and explains why each was ultimately omitted from the final cut. A cheeky alternative opening that briefly explores the history of ill-behaved children -- beginning with "Blog, the horrid cave-child" -- is especially amusing, although Jones is right that it would have slowed down the film's actual beginning. Another deleted scene concerns an ill-fated tea party involving Cedric and Mrs. Quickly. The scene is presented in cranked-up black-and-white film that lampoons silent movies.

A two-minute, 40-second gag reel is of little consequence.

How Nanny McPhee Came to Be is a thoroughly interesting presentation about Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" books, and how they were adapted to the big screen by Thompson. This short documentary is a great addition that helps add context to the DVD feature attraction.

Last, but not least, are two solid commentaries.

The first commentary features Kirk Jones and (with the noticeable exception of Thomas Sangster) the movie's child actors. The track can be very funny, if perhaps for reasons the DVD producers had not intended.

The kids often talk loudly and all at once. Even so, they aren't always the most enthusiastic of commentators. When Raphael Coleman, who plays Eric, is informed by Jones that the commentary is full-length because some people watching the DVD will want to hear it, the impatient boy responds, "Well, those people … I don't like." Another young star, Sam Honywood, is munching a snack food too close to the microphones, and has to be told several times to stop. A few children announce they have to go to "the toilet."

By the commentary's end, you're likely to have a new-found respect for Kirk Jones, who had the unenviable task of marshalling these kids through a 20-week shoot.

The second commentary features Thompson and co-producer Lindsay Doran. The women have a friendly rapport; their observations and anecdotes are smart and informative.

Final Thoughts:

A flawed family picture, Nanny McPhee is nevertheless a fun movie-going experience that benefits mightily from its lush visuals. Moreover, the DVD makes the most of its extras, showcasing concise and relevant featurettes and two commentary tracks that are informative and entertaining.

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