With the rise of reality TV and the seemingly related facts that contemporary kids are more unruly than in the past and that more households don't have a stay-at-home parent, it's not surprising that shows such as "Nanny 911" and "Supernanny" have sprouted across the airwaves. Yet, like their real-life counterparts, such fictitious characters have been on TV and in films for a long time, although their representation has been decidedly varied.
Rebecca De Mornay was the nanny from Hell in "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," while Fran Drescher was nicer but just as deadly (with that screeching Queens accent) in the sitcom "The Nanny." Robin Williams put a gender-bender spin on the vocation in "Mrs. Doubtfire," but for many people, the ultimate nanny will always be Julie Andrews in 1964's "Mary Poppins." Based on the decades-old writings of P.L. Travers, the highly entertaining musical featured a magical nanny who arrived to set some kids straight, with the film earning 13 Oscar nominations (and winning 5) along the way.
Now, more than 40 years later, a quite similar tale has arrived in the form of "Nanny McPhee." Based on the writings of Christianna Brand in the Nurse Matilda series, the film tells the tale of a mysterious nanny who arrives to set a larger (7 vs. 2) group of kids straight via magic ( a walking stick rather than Poppins' signature umbrella). There are other differences, including the number of stressed out parents (1 vs. 2), and the lack of musical numbers and fantastical elements -- mainly pertaining to the interaction with animated animals (that certainly helped make the 1964 film beloved by kids over many generations), although there is a dancing donkey here.
At this point, veteran readers of my reviews will likely expect me to scold the filmmakers for stealing/updating/treading on material that many hold sacred, or at least continuing in the unimaginative trend of remaking or borrowing previously existing works. I normally would, except for two points. For starters, one must remember that Brand wrote her books back in the '60s and '70s so I suppose she should be the target for such accusations (although the press notes state that those works were based on "tales passed down orally for generations through the author's family").
Then there's the simple and undeniable fact that the film's engaging and rather entertaining ways will probably win over all but the stingiest of critics and viewers. You might start expressing your reaction to the film by stating "But what about Mary Poppins?" but by the time the end credits start rolling, you'll likely have forgotten that or at least partially or fully accepted the comparison. And much of that credit obviously belongs to Emma Thompson who not only stars as the title character, but also wrote the screenplay adaptation.
Like any good children's storyteller, Thompson includes all of the requisite elements to make this work. There are beleaguered parents and unlikable adult figures, unruly and smart alecky kids, and an outsider who uses magic to set things straight and reestablish order. I'm not intimately familiar with Brand's novels, so I can't say whether they were condensed or just inspired this work, but Thompson certainly hits most of the right notes, just as she does with her character.
Like Poppins, she's assured in what must be done, and sets out to teach the upstart septet five lessons (her initial witch-like appearance probably helps with that, although she becomes more "normal" looking as the kids pass each "test").
They're nothing more complicated than things such as going to bed, getting dressed when told and such (thus simple enough for even the youngest of kids to understand), but rather than using today's parental bargaining tools (such as the pervasive "time out"), she employs magic to get the job done. Thus, that gets the attention of both the kids in the story -- all of whom are cute as buttons, including Thomas Sangster (the adorable kid in "Love Actually") as the ringleader -- as well as those viewing the film.
All of that may make the affair seem rather simplistic and/or too juvenile for adults to enjoy (especially when the toddler in the film is given too many cut-away reaction shots for humor). Yet, Thompson and director Kirk Jones (who previously helmed the deliciously entertaining "Waking Ned Devine") have infused the film with a bit of a British sense of humor that helps open it up to everyone.
Some of that is slightly blackened at times, thus giving the offering enough of a subversive tone to make it appealing and engaging for most viewers. That includes the father figure -- Colin Firth -- being employed in a funeral parlor (where we see a few bodies of dead, older people), and Angela Lansbury playing a nasty sort of haughtiness as the snooty great aunt whose deadline (where Firth's character must marry lest he lose her monthly allowance) fuels the plot.
My one complaint (beyond the "MP" association) is that the film somewhat loses that slightly darkened edge as it proceeds. It never gets boring, but it somewhat gets slightly repetitive as the various lessons come and go.
Yet, the film then took me by surprise by delivering a somewhat powerful emotional punch (of the good kind) as everything is righted and ends on a happy note. I won't go into details to avoid giving anything away for the youngest of viewers, but I will say that it involves the alluring Kelly MacDonald. Although I figured out where the story was headed with her scullery maid character, I was surprised by the emotional tug on the old heartstrings that only makes the film that much more appealing and pleasant.
I'm clearly not the target audience for this film, but I think I enjoyed it nearly as much as most younger kids will. While it might not be up there in matching the legendary status of its predecessor, "Nanny McPhee" is nevertheless a fairly entertaining, engaging and enjoyable offering.