Oh, what a horrible idea that CGI-animated baby was. The entire baby was not animated — that may have been tolerable, if odd — but rather just the mouth, so that it looked like that hideous, frightening gravelly-voiced thing in the Quizno’s commercials. Nanny McPhee is otherwise perfectly entertaining and sweet, sometimes strange and kind of garish in a likable storybook way, and then out of nowhere, we are treated to a startling shot of this ill-conceived monstrosity. And don’t get me started on the grinning donkey.
No, seriously: that damn baby haunts my dreams. I hate it with every fiber of my being, and I want an explanation for its presence here. Surely the story — a gaggle of seven unruly kids are reined in by a classically ugly magical governess — did not require a supernaturally expressive baby, at least not one this crass. And it can’t be that the look of the film, which is, granted, a touch indiscriminate when it comes to color scheme and production design, could not have been benefitted by the baby. Or the donkey.
But enough. Nanny McPhee is pretty good, bolstered by some bizarre flourishes that are much more appealing than the aforementioned. For one thing, the title character has some awfully draconian means of getting through to her recalcitrant charges: to begin with, she holds the little one hostage over a pot of boiling water until the rather satanic oldest boy utters “please” (note that this is before the baby starts speaking, so I was not yet earnestly wishing for its demise). Later, she literally makes the children ill, and magically traps them in their beds until they cooperate with her latest “lesson.”
You might object that these are not means conducive to children’s learning. But then, you have not seen these children. When I call them “unruly,” I do not mean that they stay up past their bedtime having a pillowfight, or refuse to finish their dinner. I mean that these are malicious devil children, whose idea of a good time is destroying entire rooms and terrorizing well-meaning strangers. So when Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) arrives, just in time to save their desperate widower dad (Colin Firth) from having a massive stress-induced coronary, you will forgive me if I thought of The Omen before anything else.
All of this works somehow (and I suppose it makes sense that particularly violent offenders require harsher treatment to begin with), and I got absorbed in the story, which is told in a completely unironic, fairy tale manner, complete with meaningful close-ups of Nanny McPhee’s warts disappearing as the children learn one lesson after another. I liked Colin Firth, too — here’s one role in which his blandness serves him well, especially since he is given an astoundingly flamboyant foil (Celia Imrie as a gaudy, execrable widow looking to marry him).
If there is a weak link (aside from… oh, never mind), it might actually be Emma Thompson, who is a bit too personality-free as the crucial title character. On the other hand, she, like Firth, has an offset: in her case, it’s Angela Lansbury, as Firth’s hilariously odious aristocrat aunt, consistently threatening to cut him off and take away his children. Thompson’s greater accomplishment is writing this film, which is both very odd and very straightforward at the same time — a sporting family entertainment.