Nanny McPhee Kirk Jones

There's always a good amount of darkness in British children's stories, marking them in contrast to American stories of feel-good optimism. It's Dickens versus Disney and Nanny McPhee is true to its cultural roots.

The story has a grieving, ineffectual widower (Colin Firth) trying to manage his unruly brood of precocious children at arm's length. The children drive away a series of nannies by behaving horribly (pretending to eat their baby sister is one of the more inspired pranks), until the magical Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) appears to turn things around for the family. Meanwhile, their father is trying to find a new wife so his aunt (a gleefully cruel Angela Lansbury) doesn't revoke their monthly allowance and bring financial ruin upon them.

The story plays with fairy tale clichés — dead mother, useless father, evil stepmother, with a Cinderella story thrown in for good measure. The film seems for a different time though; it's a simple story without any pop cultural references or adult jokes tacked on. Its design is rich and beautiful, filled with super-saturated colours, incredible costumes and intricate set decoration.

The cast is great and has a lot of fun with the material. Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay based on the Christianna Brand Nurse Matilda books) is unrecognisable in the title role and Colin Firth plays useless to perfection.

Even the seven waif-ish kids are cute without being cloying. The film is definitely family-friendly and fairly predictable, but it looks great, it's playful, and it manages to be sweet but not saccharine. (Universal)