‘McPhee’ a dreamboat 

Spellbinding, bad tooth and all.

click to enlarge GENUINE: "McPhee."
  • GENUINE: "McPhee."

While there’s nothing more cringe-worthy than a bad children’s movie, I’m a sucker for a good one. As a going-on-six-years-now father, I’ve watched a lot of kid flicks in the last couple of years, and I’ve found that — like fairy tales — the children’s movies that really resonate with children are full of meaning just below the surface, where those dark, disturbing masses of emotion and anxiety that haunt kids’ minds lurk. You know: parent death, abandonment, uncertainty and fear of the unknown.

That said, and for all those reasons, I really found myself enjoying “Nanny McPhee.” A day-glow dreamboat of a movie on its face, “McPhee” struggles with dark themes at its heart. With two of the best in the business on board — Colin Firth and Emma Thompson (though her over-the-top dental appliances tended to distract from her performance) — it’s a movie that will please both children and adults.

Here, Firth plays Colin Brown, a recently widowed undertaker with a whole houseful of mischievous children. It seems the kids have run off a succession of 17 keepers since their mother died, the last one by pulling a prank in which the poor nanny was made to believe they had cooked and eaten the baby of the brood. When Brown goes shopping for another caretaker for his children, he understandably has no takers, until he is visited by the mysterious and hideous Nanny McPhee (Thompson).

McPhee, it seems, is something of a witch, using a magic stick and various spells to torment the kiddies into minding their manners. While this might be enough for a movie, there’s also a ticking clock that the kiddies don’t know about until much later. It seems Brown’s great aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who has been keeping the household financially afloat with a monthly stipend for years, has put her foot down: Brown must marry before the month is out, or he will be cut off. If that happens, it’s off to the Dickensian workhouse for the some of the kids, into an orphanage for others.

Can Nanny McPhee whip the kids into shape, save the family fortunes, and help Brown find a marriage of love instead of convenience?

While “Nanny McPhee” has inevitably drawn comparisons to “Mary Poppins” — both star magical nannies, after all — there is a much bleaker sensibility about “McPhee,” one that screenwriter/star Thompson plays to the hilt. Though the sets are all a fruit bowl of primary colors, Thompson’s screenplay never lets you forget that potential tragedy hangs over the proceedings at all times. Onscreen, Thompson is workmanlike here (though, as I said, saddled with a huge, unfortunate tooth that juts over her lower lip) as the Arriving Stranger, though not enough is done with the question of why it is she has picked the Brown household to help. Firth fares better as the harried father who recognizes his own failings and — inevitably — his gifts.

While it’s not going to win any awards, “McPhee” is an interesting and genuine little film, with a simple plot that harkens back to the old-timey movies of yore. Easily dodging the saccharine hell of melodrama — a pit such a movie could easily have stumbled into — it’s got enough going on to easily keep kids and parents involved and entertained.

‘Annapolis’ flunks
In a country infatuated with war and war heroes, it’s only natural, I suppose, that Hollywood is so interested in how they get made. As such, there’s an entire subgenre devoted to the process. Call it “The Recruit Movie.” You know: A hot-shot/rebel/square peg/discipline case goes — for some ungodly reason — into the military. In the first reel, he butts heads with his stone-idol of a superior, failing miserably in the process. However, when faced with being kicked to the curb and breaking the promise he made to his dying mother/father/dog/rabbi, The Recruit finally realizes he can’t do it alone, and reaches out for help. It’s only then — with the help of a catchy pop tune, a cadre of enemies-turned-friends, and a convenient montage of training footage — that The Recruit learns to work within the system, succeeding in both becoming a Navy SEAL/fighter pilot/officer/deep-sea diver and gaining the respect of Sgt. Stone Idol, the hot female officer/psychologist/instructor on base, and the Commander who Saw Something In A Kid From the Wrong Side of Town — all while retaining his street-cred edge and somehow missing out on the goofball haircut all the other recruits seem to have.

Just in case you didn’t figure it out from the trailer: Yep, “Annapolis” has all those cliches and then some. What’s more, just when you think it’s going to melt into a mass of one-liners and “Top Gun” rip offs, what does it do but turn into a boxing movie, allowing it to pour on every sports-movie, go-the-distance cliche since “Rocky.”

This time, The Recruit goes to the U.S. Naval Academy, in the person of Jake Huard (James Franco), a working-class kid from the shipyard town just across the river from the academy. Taken under the wing of the aforementioned Commander who Cared (Donnie Wahlberg), Huard (fulfilling a promise to his dead mother,) gets in by the skin of his teeth, and is soon pegged by aforementioned Stone Idol upperclassman Cole (Tyrese Gibson) as not being worthy of the uniform. With the help of hot-chick-in-a-position-of-authority Ali (Jordana Brewster), straight-arrow-token-Asian Loo (Roger Fan), and tubby-outcast-loser-roommate-who-can-tutor-our-hero-in-calculus-but-can’t-complete-the-obstacle-course-on-his-own Twins (Reon Shannon), Huard struggles to prove he belongs with The Best of the Best. In the last reel, this means fighting his way to the school boxing finals, where he takes on — you guessed it — his arch-enemy, Cole.

The horror. The horror. “Annapolis” is predictable, stupid, formulaic and corny all the way through.



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