Monday, August 23, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 99: Nanny McPhee Returns and Hubble 3D

Nanny McPhee and Hubble 3D. That sounds like the first line of a children’s rhyme, but it’s actually a pair of very good movies for kids that are playing – for at least another week – in Central Jersey. The Hubble movie now at the AMC Hamilton is part of a limited run nationwide. It could close as early as next Thursday (though it will stay longer if business is good), so you might want to get the kids there before school starts.

Just 45 minutes long, Hubble 3D is more about the launching and repairing of the Hubble Space Telescope than it is about the detailed digital images captured by the giant space-based observatory. Kids will probably enjoy watching astronauts train underwater, suit up for liftoff, and build a soft taco in zero gravity on a floating tortilla, and the close-up perspective on one shuttle’s liftoff is astonishing on the huge IMAX screen. Getting a sense of the challenges that faced the astronauts is interesting too, and learning a bit about the skills and tools they used to meet those challenges (taking out tiny screws while wearing a space suit is, the Leo DiCaprio voiceover observes, “Like performing brain surgery with oven mitts”) added to my appreciation of the Hubble’s amazingly clear views of space and time. But I would have liked to see more of those views, which the voiceover describes as “imagery so complex we can actually travel through it.”

Travelling into the images, we move at what seems like a deliberate pace but is actually, Leo informs us, trillions of miles per second. We zoom in close enough to see extraordinary, often beautiful sights like the fuzzy black cloud ringing one new star or the translucent “cocoons” that protect others in “a gargantuan canyon of clouds” where new stars generate five million mph winds. We also tour our own outer-space “neighborhood,” learning about the some of the approximately 2,000 galaxies in it.

I saw the movie at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where – despite the name – it’s not shown in 3D. It would probably be even better to see it that way, but I suspect the movie’s main impact comes from the IMAX screen, which is almost like looking at space itself. Here’s hoping we never get too CGI-saturated to be awed by that sight.

The quick, self-effacing wit, obvious warmth, and commonsense demeanor that makes Nanny McPhee Returns writer/star Emma Thompson such a good talk show guest also make her movie very good indeed, as Nanny McPhee herself might say. Silly, insightful, and moving in more or less equal and gracefully alternating parts, Nanny McPhee Returns follows the honorable tradition of the best of England’s children’s literature (think E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, JK Rowling) by acknowledging the terror and grief that is part of life at any age while celebrating the joy generated by imaginative play, friendship, and core virtues like the ones Nanny McPhee preaches.

The setting is WWII England, where Isabel Green and her three children hold down the family farm (cut poop jokes) while their husband and father is away at war. “We’re coping,” insists Isabel (a sweetly frazzled Maggie Gyllenhaal, with a surprisingly good English accent), but Nanny McPhee knows better. She shows up just as the children’s city cousins, who have arrived for a visit (cue more poop jokes), are trashing the house in an all-out battle with the country kids.

Benevolent but firm, Nanny McPhee straightens things up with the help of her magic stick and a burping bird named Mr. Edelweiss. The children learn their five lessons (stop fighting, share, help each other, be brave, and have faith) while other healthy values, like being kind and trusting your gut, are conveyed in equally uncertain terms. Nanny McPhee performs some entertaining magic tricks, the kids (all very good actors) have some mildly suspenseful and emotionally resonant adventures, and everything works out in the end.

A welcome respect for women is worked into the story in the same funny, unpreachy way, from the gender reversal of the two girly-looking “hit women” who show up to collect the bad guy’s debt to the sympathetic approach to the loving, responsible, overwhelmed Isabel. Her behavior needs modifying as much as her children’s, but she’s a far cry from the neglectful or incompetent parents of most children’s tales.

On The Daily Show to promote the movie, Thompson made the inevitable comparison to that other magic English nanny, Mary Poppins, only to shoot it down. “Narcissist. My view,” she says of Poppins. “Don’t you think?” I do, Emma, I do. All the more reason to appreciate what Thompson and crew have cooked up here, which goes down even easier than that spoonful of sugar and has way more nutritional value.

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