Working Title’s latest attempt to crack the lucrative family market after the sputtering “Thunderbirds,” “Nanny McPhee” finds the Brit shingle returning to a cozy comfort zone with a “Mary Poppins”-like tale of naughty well-heeled tykes tamed by a magical child-minder. Even with its clipped English accents, “Nanny” should prove a lucrative (especially on ancillary) and exportable property with its name cast led by Emma Thompson and Colin Firth, a spoonful of sugary morality and a kidcentric mindset suitable for female tots.
Pic opened wide in Blighty Oct. 21 with a $4.6 million opening weekend, good for second place between “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.” Universal has pegged U.S. bow for Jan. 27.
Film, based loosly on Christianna Brand’s “Nurse Matilda” children’s books of the 1960s, is set in a fantasy version of the late Victorian period. However, script by Thompson often feels like a G-rated version of one of Working Title’s contempo, adult-oriented successes, with its single-parent set up (“About a Boy”) and subplot about a cross-tracks romance (“Love Actually,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) between lead grown-up Mr. Brown (WT regular Firth) and scullery maid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald). Even the slapstick recalls WT hits like “Johnny English” and “Bean.”
Funeral director Mr. Brown (Firth) — recently bereaved, good-hearted but hopeless inept at parenting — has been left with seven children, from pubescent Simon (Thomas Sangster, “Love Actually”) down to infant Agatha (twins Hebe and Zinnia Barnes). Since mom died, the Brown brood has gone through 17 nannies due to unruly behavior and such antics as pretending to have eaten the baby.
What the pint-sized hooligans don’t know is that, if dad doesn’t marry within a month, his late wife’s Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury, channeling Joyce Grenfell but with a beaky nose) will cut off a much-needed allowance, forcing the family to be split up. Propriety keeps Brown from proposing to the object of his affection, comely domestic Evangeline (Macdonald), who clearly (if mutely) returns his regard.
The only plausible candidate Brown can think of is mite-too-merry widow Mrs. Quickly (Celia Imrie, in a ripe turn, whose corseted embonpoint amply fills the widescreen frame). In the meantime, a new nanny must be found.
One evening, the frightening physiognomy of Nanny McPhee (Thompson, festooned with warts and a monobrow, plus padding under her black dress) turns up on the Browns’ doorstep. A rap of her magic walking stick on the floor forces the rioting rugrats in the kitchen to free the cook, Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton), who they’ve trussed to the table.
Thus endeth Nanny McPhee’s first lesson: Go to bed when you’re told. In due course, the Brown family, and not just the children, learns four further lessons — from the prosaic “dress when you are told” to the more homiletic “listen” — plus more, in true movie fashion, about themselves. After each lesson, Nanny McPhee loses a wart or blemish as her beauty blossoms out of the children’s growing love for her.
Fable’s didacticism is right up there on the surface, and some auds may cringe at the way pic needles middle-class anxieties about parenting skills — a fashionable topic on TV these days. But under the surface, the movie has a streak of Roald Dahl-style darkness that dilutes the sugar.
Helming by Kirk Jones is as brisk and efficient as in his previous comedy, “Waking Ned Devine,” and he shows the same skill at keeping perfs on a fine cusp between British pantomime and standard cinematic clowning. Kiddie cast’s cut-glass drama-school diction fits the characters’ well-to-do milieu, although non-British viewers may find it more charming than indigenous auds.
Supporting players like Staunton, Imrie, and Derek Jacobi (“In the Night Garden … ”) and Patrick Barlow (as Brown’s oleaginous assistants) appear to be having a ball.
Pic utilizes a lurid palette of colors — acid greens, flaming fuchsias and eye-popping purples — to create a look of comfy suburbia on acid. Almost headache-inducing effect is achieved through a diabolical pact between Michael Howells’ cluttered production design, Nic Ede’s gloriously over-the-top costumes and special grading of Henry Braham’s lensing. Use of special and visual f/x is restrained compared with most family films nowadays and deployed mostly to make Nanny McPhee’s warts disappear and, in one of the most winning sequences, make a donkey dressed as a lady dance.