He Says: ‘Nanny McPhee’ is refreshingly franchise-free
“Nanny McPhee” stands just fine on its own without a nursemaid in the form of a big kid-movie franchise behind it.While it has its basis in star Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books, “Nanny McPhee” lacks the marketing impact of, say, the new installment in the Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket cycle. Yet in spite of that – or maybe because of it – “Nanny McPhee” holds up just as well. Or maybe it’s even better.It’s self-contained, with no special wizarding vocabulary, no Gothic faux lachrymology, cats adopted by the Christian right or other back story for the uninitiated to catch up to. You could argue Nanny McPhee’s cane is a gimmick (although maybe not the most effective one – I’m still not sure what she accomplishes by striking the ground with it, other than shooting out white sparks).As such, it’s able to dispense with the introductions and stage-setting and get down to business. So does Thompson’s title character, the governess for the unruly children of widowed mortician Cedric Brown (actor Colin Firth). The little monsters – with Simon (future star Thomas Sangster) serving as ringleader – have driven off the previous ones, and so Cedric calls on government nanny McPhee.Thompson plays the title character as a cross between Mary Poppins and Sgt. Emil Foley, giving “Nanny McPhee” a familiar feel for those who’ve kept up with the latest kid-lit screen adaptations. Some of the elements will be familiar, like cute little ill-behaved British children raising havoc and a sweet, harmless sense of humor that conceals a bit of an edge.But it’s just off-kilter enough to keep viewers on their toes, and there are enough pleasant surprises to make things frequently laugh-out-loud funny. One such unexpected boost comes from Angela Lansbury, who fares far better in her comeback than Jane Fonda did in hers, as a wall-eyed old lady.Underneath the family-friendly exterior there’s a twisted, wry little heart that reaches the dark humor the first Lemony Snicket installment tried so hard to achieve. It’d certainly be paying “Nanny McPhee” too high of a compliment to put it on the same level as the likes of “Edward Scissorhands,” but it at least has enough gumption to draw humor out of a widower’s job in a mortuary. It’s certainly not in Tim Burton’s neighborhood, but I dare say he’d probably know the ZIP code.It’s a gutsy move on Thompson’s part, too, not just to don a snaggletooth and two moles, but to avoid such clichés as having Nanny McPhee evolve into the love interest as she gets more attractive. (And I certainly hope her bulbous nose is a subtle tweak to Charlize Theron’s.) It’s a message of independence and a movie Nanny McPhee would probably be proud of.
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Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or email@example.com