Macabre ‘Nanny McPhee’ more parable than story

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Nanny McPhee
Universal, 2006
Starring Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Thomas Sangster
Directed by Kirk Jones
Rated PG, 97 min.
Family/fantasy

“Nanny McPhee,” the new children’s movie from actress/screenwriter Emma Thompson, is a very strange offering indeed. It primarily concerns the growth of a family of one father (Colin Firth, “Bridget Jones’ Diary”) and his seven children, and how their lives changed in the months following the death of the family’s matriarch.

The father is under pressure by a rich Aunt (Angela Lansbury, “Beauty and the Beast”) to remarry promptly, lest he lose her necessary support. In the meantime, the children, led by the eldest boy, Simon (Thomas Sangster, “Chasing Liberty”), have developed into an undisciplined gang of ne’er-do-wells that has terrorized 17 nannies into retirement. Their lives are turned upside down when a whimsical character named Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson, “W;t”), appears and uses magic to teach them all-important lessons about life.

“Nanny McPhee,” in spite of a rather familiar plotline, is a surpassingly original film. It seems to take place in the late 19th or early 20th century, in a cartoonish reality that resembles the drawings of a children’s storybook. The most striking element of the production is its use of color. It’s as though the sets and costumes were colored by a roomful of 7-year-olds with a box of crayons and a mature understanding of color symbolism. The design is ostentatious, but hangs together with a sense of barely contained chaos that echoes the events of the film’s storyline.

The film also contains an element that is an essential part of most classic children’s tales but has been sadly lacking in the past decade: a profound touch of the macabre. When we are first introduced to the trouble-making children, they appear to be devouring their baby sister. Nanny McPhee is ominous and early in her stay her magic at times appears to place the children in danger. Their father runs a funeral home and often confides in the corpses he is working with. Given children’s oft-ignored fascination with death and the darker side of life, it is refreshing to see a children’s movie that deals with such themes in a compassionate and straightforward way.

The film’s primary flaw is that it is at times somewhat superficial. This is all the more maddening in a film that has moments of surprising depth. With seven children to juggle, only one actually emerges as a three-dimensional character: ringleader Simon. The other two boys are sketches with quirky traits; one’s hungry and the other’s a brainiac. The female children get shorter shrift; there is very little to distinguish the three of them save their ages and hair length. There is also their overbearing Aunt, played with hilarious aplomb by Lansbury, as well as a bizarre love triangle involving their father, the scullery maid and an amorous widow. With so many characters to juggle, certain plotlines and character arcs are superficial by necessity.

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It is because of this hodge-podge of elements that “Nanny McPhee” emerges as a parable rather than a fully realized story. While a story about characters rather than ideas would have been more interesting, it is an excellent parable. It is full of lessons about life and relationships for both children and their parents. Along the way it is poignant, funny and ultimately very sweet. While not for everyone, interested parties or those with children will undoubtedly enjoy it.