Friday, August 20, 2010

that old black magic

We went to see Nanny McPhee Returns this evening. We love the highly-colored, over-saturated first movie, where Emma Thompson played a slightly sinister Mary Poppins-like nanny who can whip even the worst brats into shape. The first movie was written by Thompson and populated by her wonderful British actor friends Colin Firth, Derek Jacobi and Celia Imrie, to name a few.

She returns as writer and producer in the new movie and her star-studded supporting players don't disappoint: Maggie Smith, Rhys Ifans, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who I am usually for some reason doubtful about, pleasantly surprised me yet again with a good British accent. And the kids are obnoxious only when called for by the script. In fact, the kids are a hoot, as well as the various CGI-enhanced animals.

 My first experience with stadium "lounge" seating
All in all it was great fun. There were admittedly slow, even risqué parts, for a "children's" film. Some plot points included: poverty, class-ism, wartime danger and death, dementia, fraud. Ifans's character spends the movie trying to swindle his relatives in order to save himself from having his kidneys removed—graphically, possibly—onscreen. There is definitely a Pythonesque touch to this subplot, of The Meaning of Life variety. But Thompson and crew pull off even some grisly jokes with good humor.

The movie got me to thinking how the truly great children's stories have something sad, even tragic about them. Something scary, too—especially in the best ones. The orphan Dorothy Gale and her bland Kansas existence always hover in the background of The Wizard of Oz. Snow White loses her mother in childbirth and spends most of her story trying to survive her homicidal stepmother. In Charlotte's Web the wonderful spider is trying to save "some pig" from slaughter, as children learn about nature, birth and death at the end of the book.
Thompson isn't afraid to explore the darker side of her fairy tale. Maybe she should consider adapting some Angela Carter next . . . My favorite Carter is her feminist retelling of some of the most classic fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. One of the stories, The Company of Wolves, has already been filmed by Neil Jordan. But I wonder what Thompson could do with The Bloody Chamber, a riff on Bluebeard, or The Courtship of Mr. Lyon, a version of Beauty and the Beast.

The previews before the movie just underlined the fact that most movies made for children are cartoons. Some computer-animated 3D about two wolves (yawn), a super-hero spoof voiced by Will Ferrell, Tina Fey & Brad Pitt (maybe), a computer-animated Yogi Bear (why?) Why shouldn't there be more filmed movies, with good actors, like Nanny McPhee Returns? Are the Brits the only ones even considering real actors for kids' films these days? There was a preview for the upcoming latest Narnia installment, that at least is 50-50 computer effects and actors. Nanny McPhee had its share of special effects, but the overall impression was one of watching a movie, with actors whose personalities carried the day.

Bluebeard, by Edmund Dulac
As much as Shrek is an ever-popular member of our home movie catalog, and we are also big fans of anime and classic Warner Bros. cartoons, I have to say that I inwardly smile when my daughter wants to see a movie like The Secret Garden or A Little Princess or even Night at the Museum.  I guess they just seem more like "movies" to me. And I love movies.

So I recommend checking out Nanny McPhee Returns. Here's to Emma Thompson making more movies with her talented friends. And Maggie Smith in anything. And let me know if you find out where Maggie Gylenhaal got her wardrobe. I could wear any and all of it happily.
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