The exotic, antic ground that "Nanny McPhee" treads has been well-traveled by such diverse products as "Beetlejuice," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (both versions), "James and the Giant Peach," "The Witches" and, most especially, "Mary Poppins." While this adaptation of Christianna Brand's deadpan "Nurse Matilda" series of books may not quite stand at the same level with such impressive predecessors, it's still a spicy little pastry with just the right proportions of flakiness and gooeyness.
Among the movie's small but welcome dividends is having Emma Thompson not only writing the script but pouring the full measure of her witty, borderline-wicked self into the title role: a sort of Mary Poppins with fangs -- or, more accurately, warts and a protruding tooth. You're so glad to see Thompson being funny on screen that you welcome the movie's running gag in which she unexpectedly materializes in a room, explaining dryly to her fretful employer Mr. Brown (Colin Firth), "I did knock."
Nanny McPhee materialized in Mr. Brown's life as a last resort in controlling his seven smart-aleck children, who have found ways to drive away 17 nannies through vile mischief. (They once pretended to have cooked and eaten their baby sister.) The widowed Mr. Brown, a doting if clueless parent, enjoys custody of his unruly brood through the financial support of his great-aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who warns that if he doesn't marry within the month, he'll go to debtor's prison and the kids will be scattered to various workhouses. (This is set, after all, in Victorian England.)
Anyway, Nanny McPhee, warts and all, manages the unlikely trick of winning the Brown children to her side, especially after she temporarily gets Adelaide off their backs by making the farm animals dance and passing off their simpatico housekeeper (Kelly Macdonald) as a Brown daughter in need of "proper" schooling. But whatever will the kids do after Father desperately proposes to a greedy vixen (Celia Imrie) who says yes?
The movie's kooky veneer is almost oversold by a production design intoxicated with garish colors. And as with many family-oriented features these days, "Nanny McPhee" can't resist advancing its little lessons about courtesy, attentiveness and honesty between parents and children. But among the movie's pleasant and unobtrusive ironies is the manner in which its more astringent touches provide (dear me, how can I bear to say it?) the spoonful of sugar that makes such medicine go down. I did warn you.
MPAA rating: PG for mild thematic elements, some rude humor and brief language
A Universal Pictures release. Director Kirk Jones. Screenwriter Emma Thompson. Based on the "Nurse Matilda" books by Christianna Brand. Produced by Lindsay Doran, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Cinematographer Henry Braham. Editor Justin Krish. Production designer Michael Howells. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
In general release.