Nanny McPhee

Opens Fri., Jan. 27, at Meridian and others

If you keep your expectations low, you should get a modest chuckle or two out of Emma Thompson's underfunded comeback vehicle, which she adapted from Brit children's author Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books. Since "nurse" no longer means nanny and the name Matilda was used by Roald Dahl, Thompson dubbed the character Nanny McPhee, slapped on a big fake nose, buck teeth, and a couple of homely moles, and cast herself as the new century's rather witchlike answer to Mary Poppins.

The whole cast is plundered from the top drawer of talent. Colin Firth, the chronically scowling swain of Lizzie Bennett and Bridget Jones, reveals his rarely viewed shy smile as Mr. Brown, a vaguely Edwardian widower whose naughty offspring have driven off 17 nannies to date. Angela Lansbury womanfully handles the scowling responsibilities as his tyrannical aunt Adelaide, who demands that he remarry pronto or she'll cut off the money they subsist on. As the scullery maid who's sweet on Mr. Brown, Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting) engages him in an epic shyness contest. Imelda Staunton has a ball as the ex–army cook, who craves military discipline in her kitchen but gets the Brown brats' brand of chaos instead. (The poorly differentiated kids fling food, pretend to eat the baby, speak rudely, eschew "Thank you," refuse to go to bed, and commit the usual kid crimes against propriety.)

The idea is to spice up Poppins with a bracing dash of Lemony Snicket wickedness and Roald Dahl's darkness risible. The reality sadly sags far short of that appealing idea. There is not one instant of freshness or surprise, no event not telegraphed centuries in advance. The kids' badness is too tame; it comes off as a sort of boring chore, not liberating, inspired insurrection. Nanny McPhee's imposition of order is too orderly by half. Since the original books apparently weren't big on plot, Thompson concocted one as mechanical as a computer game's. The kids must learn a numbered series of lessons, upon the completion of which Nanny loses one element of her ugliness—a mole per lesson learned.

Nanny strikes her stick to make magic happen, but it doesn't. Not-very-special special effects happen instead: Cheesy-looking donkeys dance; malingering kids find themselves physically and invisibly confined to bed. Thompson adds mean-spiritedness to the Poppins cliché without a trace of the spiritedness of more subversive reformers, like the aforementioned or the delightful heroine of Cold Comfort Farm.

Worse, Thompson plays every scene incredibly slow, particularly the ones starring her baleful stare. She's like a comic who waits 120 seconds too long to deliver a punch line. Part of the blame goes to director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), who was either in a deep doze behind the camera or paralyzed by genuflection before Thompson's Oscar-winning adaptation genius. The genius cast coasts in slow-mo to a foregone CGI conclusion. It's all shiny enough, and never dull. And never Dahl. (PG)

 
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