What’s a poor, befuddled father of seven unruly children to do when they’ve scared off 17 nannies? Call Nanny McPhee! Actually she mysteriously appears on the Brown family doorstep one stormy night after the agency tells him he’s exhausted its supply of nannies. Nanny McPhee, as imagined by screenwriter Emma Thompson and based on the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand, is a not-so-sugar-and-spice Mary Poppins who speaks quietly but carries a magic walking stick and isn’t afraid to use it. She’s a frumpy woman with a bulbous nose, a unibrow, several facial warts, and a snaggletooth, and isn’t fooled by anyone.
Emma Thompson is excellent as Nanny McPhee, who comes to the rescue of Cedric Brown (Colin Firth), an affable cosmetician at a funeral parlor by day and bewildered father, well, all the time. A widower for a year, he has help running the household and looking after the children by Evangeline (Kelly McDonald), the scullery maid who adores them despite their wicked behavior and harbors a secret love for the mostly oblivious Mr. Brown while attempting to better herself by learning to read. There’s also help from the high-strung, militaristic cook, Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton), whose kitchen is supposed to be off limits to the children, according to a contract she hilariously waves around.
Unfortunately the funeral business isn’t enough to keep the family afloat, which serves to introduce a further cast of colorful (literally and figuratively) characters in whom Mr. Brown must depend on in one way or another to try to keep his family together. Prominently figuring in this struggle is Aunt Adelaide, portrayed by the great Angela Lansbury. Her part in trying to help Mr. Brown keep his family in one piece has the potential to actually break them apart. She sends word that, if Mr. Brown doesn’t marry by the end of the month, she’s cutting off the supplemental funds that help to support them all. To make matters worse, she arrives at the house one day with the proclamation that she plans to take one of the daughters to live with her to help relieve some of his burden, a plan that mortifies both the children and their father.
The children eventually learn to trust Nanny McPhee and learn the lessons she told them she would teach, which include learning to say “please,” and “thank you.” While everyone is initially taken aback by the nanny’s rather unappealing appearance, with every lesson the children learn, her blemishes disappear until by the end of the film, she becomes quite attractive.
As directed by Kirk Jones, the film depicts a fun story frequently full of silliness that manages to entertain and show children the value of discipline, good manners, and learning to think for themselves. He provides a healthy dose of slapstick and makes the film very appealing visually, with sets and costumes using every color of spectrum, especially in Mrs. Quickly’s wardrobe.
The film should appeal to children roughly 12 and under, with scenes of a dancing donkey and the wild antics of the seven Brown children, led by Thomas Sangster (Love, Actually). Parents will likely enjoy the film as well for the grownup, feelgood ending and a story that seems to keep children engaged for around two hours. Also worth noting are the good performances mostly all around including those mentioned above, from Colin Firth as the bumbling, stumbling father and Celia Imrie as the garish Mrs. Quickly.
Chicago Sun-Times (Jan 27, 2006, by Roger Ebert) - 3 out of 4 stars
Will kids like the movie? I suspect they will. Kids like to see other kids learning the rules even if they don't much want to learn them themselves. Here is the Brown family, teetering on the brink of poverty and yet living in a house rich American kids could only envy. Lots of staircases, lots of hiding places, lots of gardens, and even a big old kitchen ruled by a red-faced cook, Mrs. Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton), who throws things at them but always seems to have a few chickens in a pot in case anyone should want sandwiches.
Sacramento Bee (Jan 26, 2006, by Carla Meyer)
There is magic in "Nanny McPhee," courtesy of an otherworldly, wart-laden child minder played by Emma Thompson, but nothing that would floor Mary Poppins. The effects run toward smiling animals and gurgling potions. This lack of visual dazzle, combined with barely sympathetic child characters, keep the film from enchanting as fully as it might have....
The adult interactions hold far more interest, at least for the grown-ups in the audience. Firth, still a dreamboat a decade after playing Mr. Darcy, taps his uncanny ability to impart a character's innermost thoughts while containing his expressions. Mr. Brown seems a bit afraid of Nanny McPhee, and Thompson brings an air of amusement to scenes with Firth.
Despite an appearance that suggests villainy, Thompson is calm and even soothing. Nanny McPhee's unruffled demeanor derives from knowing best, and seeing all, including what appears to be an attraction between the scullery maid and widower....
Variety (Oct 24, 2005, by Leslie Felperin)
Working Title's latest attempt to crack the lucrative family market...finds the Brit shingle returning to a cozy comfort zone with a "Mary Poppins"-like tale of naughty toff tykes tamed by a magical childminder. Even with its clipped English accent, "Nanny" should prove a lucrative (especially on ancillary) and exportable property with its name cast led by Emma Thompson and Colin Firth, spoonful of sugary morality and a kidcentric mindset suitable for female tots...
Film is based loosely on the '60s "Nurse Matilda" children's books by Christianna Brand, and 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") 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...."
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 besides, in true movie fashion, about themselves. After each step in this education, Nanny McPhee looses 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 via reality shows. But under the surface, the movie has a streak of Roald Dahl-style darkness which dilutes the sugar. For starters, the loss of the mother is keenly felt. And Nanny McPhee's general rule states, "When you need me but do not want me, I must stay; but when you want me but no longer need me, I must go. It seems a little cruel, but there you go."
Helming by Kirk Jones is as brisk and efficient as in his previous comedy, "Waking Ned," 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 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.
The Observer (Oct 23, 2005, by Philip French)
Kirk Jones's well-meaning comedy, Nanny McPhee, is a didactic fable....The movie tends to jerk along rather than flow, and the performances are on the broad side....I can't see kids being too enthusiastic.
The Sun (Oct 21, 2005, by Johnny Vaughan) 4 stars ****
Oscar winner Emma Thompson heads an all-star cast as the snaggle-toothed Nanny McPhee in this enchanting family flick. Classy support is provided by Angela Lansbury as batty Aunt Adelaide while Imelda Staunton is a picture of pantomime silliness as the fretful cook. Funny and heartwarming, this is a slice of family fun that I guarantee your kids will think is simply magic.
The Telegraph (Oct 21, 2005, by Tim Robey)
I'm not seven, or the chances are that I'd have liked Nanny McPhee. I did try. Second-guessing what children might enjoy is always a tricky business, particularly when there are other films still on release (Wallace and Gromit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) which do a much better job of entertaining the grown-ups too.
All I can say is that, while Working Title's comic fantasy may keep its target age group amused, it has an unpleasantly confected, icky-poo quality that left me feeling vaguely oppressed....
Thompson has a nicely subdued presence, hanging back from the action with a wise twinkle rather than thrusting her performance at us too cartoonishly. Her generous screenplay gives Firth, too, the chance to underplay amiably. But their efforts are undone by clodhopping direction from Kirk Jones, production design that basically consists of someone chucking red and green paint around the place, and a punishingly mawkish score from a composer (Patrick Doyle) who really ought to know better.
Frogs in teapots, cakes in faces, frequent deployment of the word bum: the kids aren't likely to complain. But the film gets stuck in a spin cycle of silly moment, rude moment, and—now, children—a sad moment. Add to that a supporting cast of luvvies from the old Ken-and-Em stable (Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, Derek Jacobi) who just get trotted out to wiggle their faces at the camera.
I was hoping the wonderful Angela Lansbury might come up with something more memorable as Firth's dowager aunt, but even she gets a pointless putty nose and suffers the indignity of being upstaged by a deeply sinister dancing CGI donkey.
Nanny McPhee is all bells and whistles, which sounds like fun, but having them jangled in your face for an hour and a half just isn't.
Daily Mirror (Oct 21, 2005, by David Edwards) - 3 stars
...a Mary Poppins wannabe written by and starring Emma Thompson...Set in a quasi-Victorian world full of wicked stepmothers and evil aunts, where everyone lives in countrified castles, it’s passable—if a bit boring—with a fine supporting cast including Angela Lansbury, Derek Jacobi and especially Celia Imrie helping the medicine go down.
The Guardian (Oct 21, 2005, by Peter Bradshaw) - one star
Emma Thompson is a formidably clever, double-Oscar-winning star who has suppressed a range of talents for this bafflingly humourless and patronising sub-Mary Poppins film. It's set in theme-park Olde Englande - a mixture of Hogwarts, Narnia and Hell - in which a lovable gent (Colin Firth) and his seven badly-behaved yet adorable children live in a multi-coloured ramshackle house. Stern Nanny McPhee, played by Thompson, arrives to keep them in order, and every time their behaviour improves she loses a wart.
The kids all have a creepy child-actor strangeness; when lined up, they look like they are auditioning for a new version of The Midwich Cuckoos. One, speaking in a home counties accent, actually pronounces the word lullaby as "looo-la-bye". Short of pulling his hair back to reveal three sixes there is nothing more disturbing he could have done.
Angela Lansbury plays a disapproving and short-sighted great aunt, and there is one moment when Nanny McPhee makes a horse stand on its hind legs and pretend to be one of the children in order to hoodwink her. You could get fewer laughs from this scene only by commissioning a rewrite from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Just one line shows Emma Thompson's natural wit. "Do the children say 'please' and 'thank you'?" asks Nanny McPhee. "In what context?" replies their father weakly. The rest of the time it's weirdly straight and I suspect Thompson has been instructed by the suits to dumb her screenplay down for the global market. What a shame.
The Independent (Oct 21, 2005, by Anthony Quinn)
More Working Title tat....Are we dealing with a parent's fantasy here or a child's? Either way, this compound of Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady has been gussied up with a repulsive multi-hued paint job and a screenplay that see-saws between the arch and the sentimental. By the end, proceedings have slumped into a pie fight, a sure sign of flagging inspiration. Only Imelda Staunton as the ex-army cook raises a smile.
Evening Standard (Oct 20, 2005 by Derek Malcolm)
That which is loved is always beautiful, goes the old Norwegian proverb. But Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) looks at first to be the exception to the rule.
When she arrives at the Victorian household of widower Mr Brown (Colin Firth), an undertaker's assistant whose children have driven away 17 nannies, she's enough to scare this critic, let alone the kids. Swathed in black, and proclaiming herself a government nanny, she has a bulbous nose, two nasty warts and a front tooth that sticks out of her mouth as though it can't stand her breath. But she has kind eyes which seem to gainsay the tough way she deals with the kids and, slowly but surely, she teaches them manners. Gradually, too she becomes a bit more like the Emma we know and love, as if the more the children like her, the more her looks are transcended...
[T]he film is a throwback to a kinder age with special effects knobs on. It has an old-fashioned enthusiasm but lacks the charm that made The Railway Children, for instance, such a perennial favourite. And the good cast, which has Thomas Sangster playing the leader of the brood, Imelda Staunton as cook and Derek Jacobi, rather thrown away in a tiny part, are straining a little at times.
While children will love it, something is missing. I fear it is played too much as grotesque farce and too little as charming fantasy. It makes you wonder exactly what it's trying to do, and to whom.
The Times (Oct 20, 2005 by James Christopher) - 3 out 5 stars
The titular carer in Nanny McPhee is not exactly Mary Poppins. Emma Thompson’s chilly governess looks like the Wicked Witch of the East. A single spooky eyebrow runs across her forehead. Huge hairy warts pepper her face. Her bulbous purple nose is a thing of wonder. A single yellowy snaggle tooth protrudes from the mouth. But after 17 governesses Colin Firth’s hapless widower, Mr Brown, can’t afford to be choosy. His seven rebellious children are driving him nuts. Debtors are knocking down the door. The funeral parlour he owns is running out of coffins. And the precious allowance he pockets from Angela Lansbury’s beaky aunt, Lady Adelaide Stitch, is to be cut off if he isn’t married by the end of the month.
Kirk Jones’s wholesome comedy about the importance of manners is perfect half-term entertainment. Childish fears about a motherless world are sharpened into a gothicky fable, and the film is studded with enough saucy cameos to make parents squirm with pleasure.
Thompson is the infinitely unflappable nanny of the title. She treats the lawless children to large spoonfuls of their own medicine and by magical inches earns their grudging respect. Her witchy ways defeat the best-laid plots to trash the kitchen, terrorise potential stepmothers or stay in bed with phantom doses of measles.
As the children learn to behave, her gruesome face visibly softens. Moles disappear, the single eyebrow splits in two, and the nose starts to shrink from a King Edward lump to a salad potato. The “moral” is as clear as a parking ticket.
Small fruity turns by a heavyweight cast season the comedy. Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow camp it up as a pair of “suits you” undertakers. A bosomy Celia Imrie is a vulgar flashy delight as Mrs Quickly, a rampant widow who flattens the bumbling Mr Brown. And Kelly Macdonald is effortlessly winning as a humble scullery maid infatuated with Firth’s benighted funeral director.
It’s all as reassuring and old-fashioned as boiled sweets.
ScreenDaily (Oct 19, 2005 by Finn Halligan)
Emma Thompson makes her long-awaited return to actress-screenwriter mode...with Nanny McPhee, a family film based on the Nurse Mathilda children’s books. Also appearing in this tale of seven motherless children, their hapless father (Firth) and their astonishingly ugly nanny (Thompson) is Angela Lansbury, returning to the big screen after a 20-year absence. Her presence among the cast only adds to the overall feeling that Thompson has put Bedknobs And Broomsticks into a blender, adding a dash of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a pinch of The Railway Children and a shake of The Sound Of Music before rounding it all off with an extra-large helping of Mary Poppins....
As such, Nanny McPhee should prove a welcome spoonful of nostalgia for adults with young families - although their children are more likely to be drawn by the sub-Harry Potter chord with its liberal use of magic elements. The core audience in the UK, where it enjoys a release on Oct 21 just ahead of the half-term holiday, should be children in the five to 12-year-old bracket (in urban areas the upper end of the age scale may be lower). Beyond that Nanny McPhee will require careful handling, and star-based marketing will hampered by the fact that Thompson is unrecognisable for the most part. But this is quality family entertainment, which should win through if it is scheduled appropriately, and, like its antecedents, become a staple of Christmas TV viewing....
This is sprightly entertainment from Thompson, who takes evident delight in her heavy disguise and supreme on-screen uglification. Firth gives good romantic support, the children charm, the fairytale aspects work, and there’s all the RADA character-work (Jacobi, Staunton) required from an old-fashioned British family movie.
Sometimes it can feel too perfectly worked out and, like many Working Title films, has a tendency to over-egg the finale in a wedding sequence which is over-the-top, even for a potential audience which likes to dress for school in pink and purple sequins. Technical credits, including colourful production design, are solid throughout, and round off a smoothly-executed feature from director Kirk Jones, his first since 1998’s Waking Ned.
Shadows on the Wall (July 17, 2005, by Rich Cline) - 3-1/2 out of 5 stars
Based on Christianna Brand's Nurse Mathilda books, this whimsical and wonderfully nasty children's tale is thoroughly enjoyable, if not hugely notable. And it has an edgy unpredictability that raises it above most kids' movies. Parallels to Lemony Snicket are somewhat obvious, what with a group of inventive kids at the mercy of the perilous adult world around them. But where that film only pretended to be dangerous, this film has a real sense that life for these children really does hang in the balance, requiring them to use their wits and understand the consequences of their actions. There are some lapses in the script, most notably a ludicrous dancing donkey and an oversweet fairy-tale finale, but when it keeps the magic subdued and character-based, it works perfectly.
The cast is a Harry Potter-like who's who, taking advantage of all scene stealing opportunities with glee. Staunton, Imrie (as Mr Brown's hideous finacee), Jacobi and Barlow (as his employees) are wonderful. And Lansbury is clearly having a crotchety old blast in her first movie in more than 20 years. Thompson, Firth and Macdonald have less showy central roles, and hold it together nicely, while the child actors all create vivid characters.
Jones directs with a lively sense of magical realism, and he manages to assemble a brightly colourful production design that actually looks lived in for a change. He also remembers to understate the film's important messages, which makes it actually feel meaningful without being obvious about it. If he'd had that much restraint with the cute factor, this could've been a minor classic.
The Hollywood Reporter (Oct 18, 2005 by Ray Bennett)
Bottom line: Noise, color and special effects, but no warmth.
Sunday Mirror (Oct 16, 2005 by Mark Adams)
WHAT'S GOOD? While the supporting cast are all terrific, it is her movie and she has a great time as the grotesque-looking Nanny (sounding just like her actress mother Phyllida Law). She is the delightful core to a wonderful family film which as much fun for adults as it is for kids. The cute array of nippers are led by Thomas Sangster (the youngster from Love Actually). It's also great to see Angela Lansbury crop up in her first film role in two decades. Great make-up and special effects all combine for a great and fun family viewing experience.
WHAT'S BAD? OK, so it all sounds a little too much like a darker version of Mary Poppins. But it's a lot less bland than the Julie Andrews version and there is far more invention and wit. The likes of Celia Imrie, Imelda Staunton and Angela Lansbury ham things up as if their lives depended on it, but sadly Colin Firth's role is a little underwritten and there's a slight worry that the plot twists may confuse younger viewers.
Empire (4 out of 5 stars)
For her first screenplay since 1995’s Oscar-winning Sense And Sensibility, Emma Thompson has adapted a little-known children’s book and, with the help of Waking Ned director Kirk Jones, delivers a wickedly fun family adventure. Based on the Nurse Matilda series of books printed in the 1960s, Nanny McPhee has an old-fashioned feel mixed with some 21st century trickery as the warty, severe, black-gowned nanny slowly reveals that there may be more to her child-rearing skills than meets the eye (Thompson is clearly having a ball as the magical old maid). The rest of the cast—kitted out in vibrantly coloured semi-Victorian garb (it’s not set in a specific time or place but most closely resembles a bizarro panto-land)—keep the tone fun, from Imelda Staunton’s bonkers cook to Colin Firth’s befuddled dad and Celia Imrie’s hideous Mrs. Quickly, while the kids (led by Love Actually’s Thomas Sangster) are cute without being sickly. Of course, it’s Thompson’s show throughout, thanks to her superb interpretation of McPhee as Mary Poppins meets TV’s Supernanny with a bit of Anne Robinson mixed in
Verdict: Frothy and fun yet deliciously dark, this may be eclipsed by next month’s Harry Potter but should be sought out for its own, equally entertaining, magical charm
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