Nanny McPhee

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When a nanny runs screaming from an old English house and the narrator says it’s because the children are brats, you think: I don’t care how naughty the kids are, the nanny’s not going to run screaming from the house. She may fume and sputter, and she may certainly quit her job. But she’s not going to sprint out the door and down the street. That’s not realistic.

Then you see the distraught woman arrive at the children’s father’s place of employment. She breathlessly reports that the children have eaten the baby. Suddenly her terrified flight from the home seems more believable. And what’s that? They ATE the baby? Now, this is a kids’ movie I can get behind!

“Nanny McPhee” is that kind of film, a delightful family comedy that has magic and charm and even a food fight. The kids are miscreants, no question, but they learn to behave. I don’t just think kids would enjoy watching the movie. I think they should be REQUIRED to watch it.

The little monsters are the Brown children, four girls and three boys, all under the age of about 13, the youngest still in diapers (and safely hidden while the others ate a roasted chicken disguised in the baby’s clothes as a means of freaking out the nanny). The kids aren’t inherently rotten, but they have never properly dealt with the death of their mother some months ago, and their father (Colin Firth) — a gentle, loving man — isn’t coping, either. He leaves her sitting-room chair unoccupied and often speaks to it as a stand-in for her. In his daze, he has not kept careful tabs on the children’s emotional needs.

Whatever the reason, the kids need discipline, and fast. Enter Nanny McPhee. Comparisons to Mary Poppins are inevitable: She arrives unbidden by descending from the sky, uses magic and cleverness to deal with misbehaving British children, and departs when she is no longer needed. She even helps them fly kites! (I believe that’s an intentional homage to Mary Poppins.)

Where Nanny McPhee differs from Ms. Poppins, however, is that Nanny McPhee is horrifically ugly. She has a single bucktooth, a bulbous, radishy nose, Tommy Lee Jones eyebrows and two giant, hairy warts. For a moment I thought Gerard Depardieu had wandered into the film.

She has a mild, tranquil personality, seems unconcerned about her appearance (and people’s reaction to it), and immediately sets to work on the children. The oldest boy, Simon (Thomas Sangster), is the most articulate of the bunch and perhaps the most stubborn. Behind him is Eric (Raphael Coleman), a mad genius who can build pudding-throwing devices and make bombs out of common household items. The girls are a bit quieter, but no less gleeful in their destruction of property and defiance of authority.

Nanny McPhee uses a bit of magic, not to mention the children’s own strong wills, to help them see the consequences of bad behavior. When they fake illnesses to avoid getting up in the morning, she casts a spell that KEEPS them in bed, no matter how hard they try to sit up.

But there are other pressing matters at hand, too. Mr. Brown works as the village undertaker, but he can’t support his children and his household staff on that salary. (Nanny McPhee seems to work without charging a McFee, but there’s also the lovely scullery maid played by Kelly Macdonald and the bitter cook played by Imelda Staunton.) So Mr. Brown is reliant on dreadful Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) for financial support, and the old bat has insisted she will cut him off if he is not re-married within a month. But the only eligible woman in town is Selma Quickly (Celia Imrie), a dreadful, garish widow who hates children. Do you think the Brown kids will allow their father to marry such a beast? But will Nanny McPhee let them stop him?

The film was directed by Kirk Jones, his first effort since 1998’s “Waking Ned Devine.” It benefits greatly from Michael Howells’ cartoony production design — lots of solid greens, blues and reds — and Henry Braham’s fairy tale-ish photography. The story loses steam a bit in its second half, when Nanny McPhee moves to the background and the marriage thread takes center stage, but it never gets dull.

All of the children give witty, precocious performances, and the adults play with a genuine sense of enthusiasm. Some kids’ movies don’t bother getting good actors to play the grown-ups, and some grown-up actors don’t take kid flicks seriously, phoning in their performances and cashing their paychecks. “Nanny McPhee” shows what a difference it can make, with seasoned thespians Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton infusing their characters not just with wackiness but with real personality. A good actor is fully committed to every role, even the goofy ones that require prosthetic noses.

Emma Thompson herself wrote the screenplay (based on the “Nurse Matilda” books by Christianna Brand), so it should be no surprise that it’s smart and funny. But I was surprised anyway. What could have been just a middling kids’ movie turns out to be sweet and humorous, the first truly joyful film of 2006.

B+ (1 hr., 37 min.; PG, mild potty humor and general rudeness.)

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