I'm not going to tell you whether to watch it or not, because it's the kind of movie that only appeals to a certain type of person. If you are offended by vulgar humor, a witchlike nanny, gruesome and exaggerated characterizations, revolting sight gags, randomly lovely scenes, and the moral ambiguity (and innuendo) of recent movies such as Peter Pan and Finding Neverland, you will not like Nanny McPhee. Reasons to watch it begin with Emma Thompson, end with the artistic final credits, and encompass such remarkable elements as the absolutely stunning design (the vibrantly colored house and clothing contrast with Nanny McPhee's black garb and the snow-in-August wedding scene), the bizarrely satisfying British humor, and the fairytale plot. I loved it, and berated myself for loving it at the same time.
The puzzling paradox of children's movies that shouldn't be shown to children has been turning in my mind ever since my friend and I left the movie theater last night. Peter Pan and Nanny McPhee go in that category. Now draw a Venn diagram in your head, linking Nanny McPhee with Finding Neverland, a movie about parentless children in Victorian England; Finding Neverland should of course be classed with Peter Pan; draw a circle around Finding Neverland, Dear Frankie, Nanny McPhee, and Second-Hand Lions (parentless children learning to cope with life); factor in Holes (which fits with all the movies about coping, but whose protagonist has two parents).
All of these movies, to a greater or lesser degree, have a distinctly fatalistic quality. The plots are so tight that they result in a simple formula: everything that happens + everything else that happens = meaning. If the scullery maid is reading a fairytale at the beginning of the movie about a prince who marries a plowgirl, then be assured that the scullery maid will marry a rich man by the end. Although comforting in that no stitch is dropped, the plots are almost mechanistic. If a child is angry at his father, you have only to help the child realize why the father behaved the way he did for the child to become sweet as a lamb. No room is left for children to be just plain perverse. What would happen if the children in the movies didn't accept the grownups' coping mechanisms? What if little Peter in Finding Neverland stubbornly refused to believe that his mother was floating about in Neverland after she died? What if little Frankie became an axe-murderer? What if the protagonist of Second-Hand Lions kicked his mother in the head?
Victorian children's literature (such as Alice in Wonderland), for all its flaws, at least reflected life's seeming randomness. And before that, fairytales did the same. What we have now is brilliantly executed movies that imprison their child characters in terrifying worlds that only become bearable when the children learn the magic formula. And that is, I think, precisely why I would not show most of these movies to children. I can appreciate the difference between a comfortable, predictable world that I wish existed and the world that really does exist, but it's unfair to expect children to realize that difference. It's unfair to bill movies as "for children" when they are really for adults who wish that life made sense.