Emma Thompson knows what kids like.
The screenplay here, which Thompson adapted from Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books, begins in a place just macabre enough and even a wee bit perverse — much like the seven supremely naughty children featured in Nanny McPhee. This unmanageable brood — tykes so awful they're not above concocting elaborate scenarios in which babies appear to be eaten — pride themselves in having driven away scores of hearty nannies screaming in terror.
Enter the eponymous Nanny McPhee, a snaggle-toothed, warty, anti-Mary Poppins played by Thompson herself as a cross between a drill sergeant, a Zen master and a troll. As expected, the supernaturally-powered uber-nanny butts heads and eventually bonds with the wild beastie-boys-and-girls, magic is unleashed, and tough love conquers all.
The movie winds up a little too eager to warm hearts and never quite lives up to the promising Roald Dahl/Edward Gorey darkness of its set-up, but Nanny McPhee gets most of what it does right. Thompson is joined by a cast of top-notch English thespians like Colin Firth and Angela Landsbury (all in fine form), the production design and special effects are solid, and there are even a couple of extremely disgusting food fights to amuse the youngest sectors of the film's demographic. Also stars Kelly MacDonald, Imelda Staunton and Derek Jacobi.
NANNY MCPHEE (PG) opens Jan. 27 at local theaters. 3 stars