Poor Mr. Brown. Recently widowed and left with seven young children, he's unable to make ends meet without the financial assistance of his controlling, callous Aunt Adelaide. She's forcing him to marry within the month or lose her "generosity"—which would mean giving up his house and sending his kids off to other families.
She's not the main problem, however. His children are. They are, in the words of the narrator, "very clever, but very, very, very naughty." Unruly. Ill-behaved. Undisciplined. They're brats who have managed to run off the previous 17 nannies—the latest victim after only three days, eight hours and 47 minutes. So finding someone willing to help Brown raise these children and establish order within his household isn't easy, especially when the only nanny agency in town slams its doors in his face.
Enter Nanny McPhee, who appears out of nowhere with her haggish appearance, magical walking stick and unchanging rules of discipline. Within minutes, the Brown children realize she's no ordinary nanny. And despite their best efforts to get rid of her, she quickly proves she's not going anywhere until they've learned a few valuable lessons—five lessons, to be precise.
Those lessons highlight the importance of obedience, discipline, respect, honesty, good manners, solid parenting, etc. There are also several positive messages about accepting consequences for your actions, as well as treating children based on their potential for good rather than their past mistakes. So make no mistake, Nanny McPhee is neither cruel nor overly harsh. She serves as a well-balanced parental figure who never talks down to the children and gives them credit when credit is due. She also encourages others to making their own decisions rather than relying on someone—or something (such as magic)—to save them. The children grow to love and appreciate her, and they express this throughout.
On several occasions, scullery maid Evangeline voices her love for the children. "They're all good—underneath it all," she says. She's also willing to make a sacrifice for the sake of keeping the family together. In fact, the importance of family—and staying together as one—is highlighted often.
Though Brown initially doesn't take time for his own children and certainly isn't the most attentive of parents, it's obvious he loves them and is willing to do anything to prevent them from being taken away. He eventually apologizes to them for not including them in family matters that alter their lives. They, in turn, ask him for forgiveness for their behavior and tell a woman that their father is "a good man, and he was trying to save us."
After seeing her rearrange rooms, turn back time and even control their own movements, the Brown children suspect that Nanny McPhee is either a hypnotist ... or a witch. The kids finally resign themselves to not knowing where she gets her magical powers. Moviegoers will have to do the same.
This is no Harry Potter with sorcery and "the dark arts," though, despite the presence of Nanny's knotty walking stick that shoots sparks when she taps it. Instead, it's Mary Poppins' spoonful of sugar mixed up with Lemony Snicket. (More on that in the "Conclusion.")
A confused priest offers Brown the church's official view on a matter and utters, "Hallelujah!" A pair of Brown's co-workers joke about Brown's large clan by saying he should be in the business of christenings. Brown tells his children that their deceased mother still thinks about them "from where she is."
Ms. Quickly, a devious socialite who—for convenience's sake—could be Brown's next wife, shows cleavage in her period dresses. While having tea with the widower, she misinterprets his attempts to distract her from the children's antics as a come-on, describing him as "inflamed" with passion for her. (It doesn't help that he jumps on her, shoves her against the wall and ends up burying his face in her cleavage—all while trying to cover up for his kids' attempts to get her to leave.) She tells a friend that Brown "couldn't keep his hands off me" and later kisses him.
When it's suggested that Brown marry Evangeline, Aunt Adelaide and a priest both assume her to be Brown's daughter and mistakenly call the potential pairing "incest."
While Nanny McPhee keeps its violence within typical PG territory, there are a few things in particular parents should be aware of. During early scenes showing the rambunctious children at their worst, an infant is placed in a large roasting pan (with a lid covering her) as the kids pretend to have eaten their youngest sibling. Later, she's almost flung across the room into a boiling kettle. Simon, the oldest child, whacks their cook on the back of the head with a frying pan; the children then gag and bind her to the table while they wreak havoc in the kitchen, breaking dishes, swinging from the pot rack, etc.
During a wedding, a food fight erupts involving both adults and children. Brown initiates the just-for-laughs scrap by hitting Ms. Quickly's hat off her head, which knocks her to the ground. During an earlier scene, he slips on a toy and tumbles down the stairs. He also grabs an electrically charged doorknob but isn't harmed.
Crude or Profane Language
A single use of "h---" accompanies a variety of cruel descriptions of the children (monsters, b-ggers). Other names used to describe people include "cad," "tart," "mad fool," "trout" and "hag." While initially testing Nanny McPhee, the kids introduce themselves using such names as "Bum," "Bosoms," "Poop" and "Oglington Fartworthy" (Simon emphasizes and spells out the last name). Aunt Adelaide twice tells Brown to "shut up." "Golly" is said. Ms. Quickly exclaims, "Oh my Lord," though she follows it with various flattering titles for Aunt Adelaide.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Ms. Quickly seems a bit tipsy during a conversation and asks her friend to pour another glass of sherry.
Other Negative Elements
The children are accustomed to getting their way, often through deceptive and destructive means. Upon first meeting Nanny, they're also shown as completely defiant. Simon refuses to say please, while he and his siblings also lie to her. Likewise, the entire family dupes Aunt Adelaide by calling Evangeline one of their own.
The camera zooms in as Ms. Quickly unknowingly eats worms.
Emma Thompson was fully aware her film would garner a plethora of Mary Poppins comparisons when she penned the script for Nanny McPhee (which she based on the 1950s Nurse Matilda children's books by Christianna Brand). Maybe that's why her character is so hideous in appearance, and why she told Time magazine, "She's the opposite of Mary Poppins, who turns up and shows off and starts pulling things out of her carpetbag. This movie is a Western. There is a situation of chaos. Then a stranger rides in and—using unorthodox methods—sorts out the situation, restores balance and then has to leave."
Nanny McPhee may be the opposite of Mary Poppins in appearance and in her staged entrance, but she goes about doing exactly the same things Poppins does—without all that singing and dancing, of course. As is Poppins, McPhee is all about making kids good and parents better, even if that means both have to learn the hard way. "I shall be sure to give them exactly what they need," she declares. And, as does Poppins, she relies on her magic to drive home most of her points.
Poppins snaps her fingers and, spit-spot, the children's nursery is suddenly clean. McPhee taps her walking stick and the Browns' kitchen is instantly immaculate. Poppins uses her umbrella to turn smoke into a staircase. McPhee once again taps her stick and a donkey begins acting like a girl. We don't know where McPhee comes from any more than we know where Poppins comes from, but (thankfully) neither relies on spells, incantations or the occult any more than, say, Tinkerbell does.
Cleavage, a worm sandwich, an amorous misunderstanding, and touches of crude language and slapstick violence push the age of Nanny McPhee's target audience higher than that of Mary Poppins'. But on the whole it's a fun, well-crafted, tender-hearted tale about getting a grip on your family and seeing beauty inside of everyone. It preaches obedience, tough love, sacrifice and gratitude, while scolding parents who either spoil or ignore their children.