You'll have a hard time finding any movie reviews of director Kirk Jones' Nanny McPhee that doesn't compare the story to Mary Poppins. But that doesn't mean the film is a cheap imitation.

Mainstream critics are generally positive about McPhee, especially praising Emma Thompson, who plays the magical, scowling, strict lead character from the beloved Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand. This super-nanny seems, at first, to be ugly and forbidding. But as she teaches the children and their father (Colin Firth) a thing or two, they begin to warm up to her, and audiences will too.

But what does it all mean? Christian film critics are giving mixed reviews.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "It perfectly captures the dark humor and ominous authority of [the] books on which the film was based. But somewhere along the way, the film loses sight of this theme, and it becomes a movie about something else entirely, with disappointing results."

More specifically, he continues, "by the time the food fight gets under way, you are reminded less of Mary Poppins and more of the recent slapstick-happy remakes of Cheaper by the Dozen and Yours, Mine and Ours. (Bad behavior isn't always bad, it seems; this film wants to throw its cake and eat it too.) And it all comes to a climax in an ending pinched from Disney's Cinderella. There are many different kinds of children's movies, and this one tries to be all of them at once."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "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."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) criticizes the film for not following her idea of good screenplay rules, and for much more than that. "The children learn some good lessons—and others which are puzzling—but some of their mischief is not rebuked. Nanny McPhee also carries too much willing suspension of disbelief. … Because of the numerous story and character development issues, Nanny McPhee just isn't that satisfying. Not to mention the fact that there is always a certain 'cringe factor' when a movie extols witchcraft as the answer." And she concludes that Colin Firth's character is the film's biggest problem. "As viewers, we are dying for him to rise up and be a man worthy of following, but it never happens."

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But Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) is not at all offended. "The plot is wildly derivative … but no less enjoyable for that. And the sweet tale is touching, well acted by its solid British cast and the fairy-tale ambience is successfully sustained. Some very mild innuendo when Brown courts Quickly, and a couple of remarks about incest, which will go over most kids' heads, preclude recommendation for very young children. Otherwise, this candy-hued fable is delightful viewing and imparts admirable messages about the primacy of family and the inherent goodness of people."

And Jenn Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Nanny McPhee is a fun, delightful movie."

Big Momma's House 2 should be condemned

If you want to pay nine dollars to see Martin Lawrence in a fat-lady outfit—again—well, I guess Big Momma's House 2 will appease you.

Lawrence returns to the role of FBI agent Malcolm Turner, this time posing as a nanny for the children of a computer whiz (Mark Moses) in order to stop a conspiracy that would unleash a dangerous computer worm. And it gets laughs—or tries to—from jokes about gigantic underwear and stupid white folks.

Apparently, jokes about fat and underwear are exactly what America wants. The movie was No. 1 at the box office last week, in spite of mainstream critics' best efforts to explain to people that this is a waste of big screen time. Christian critics agree: This House should be condemned.

"Big Momma's House 2 isn't awful, but it is lazy and cliché d," writes Bob Smithouser (Plugged In). "Even its homilies on family ties, while appreciated, feel cribbed. The fat jokes are tiresome, as are the stereotypes of grandmotherly black women who adore Oprah, lust after Billy Dee Williams and invoke the name of Al Sharpton at the faintest hint of racial discrimination. There's not a funny, original idea in sight."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says that the movie's "questionable elements are hardly redeemed by the film's tacked-on family values message." He concludes, "A closing line suggests we haven't seen the last of Malcolm's matron, 'You never know when Big Momma might be back.' One can only hope not soon."

Zero stars for awful Annapolis

Director Justin Lin takes viewers to Annapolis for a story about soldiers-in-training who learn to be fighters in the boxing ring. And the result is a movie that's being described as a United States military recruiting film … which is odd, considering that the film has been condemned as grossly inaccurate by the U.S. Navy, and Christian and mainstream critics alike are panning the film.

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In fact, Christianity Today Movies' Lisa Ann Cockrel slaps the film with a zero-star rating, putting it on that lowest-possible level with rejects like Catwoman.

"It's difficult to find anything to praise about Annapolis," says Cockrel. "The narrative coddles its audience by offering stock characters reciting cliché d dialogue … and then has the audacity to ask viewers to do the heavy lifting of filling in the gaps in logic when the characters make head-scratching decisions."

She explains why the film earned a thumbs down from the United States Naval Academy. "After reviewing several drafts and offering extensive suggestions, Academy officials ultimately refused to grant the filmmakers permission to use footage shot on campus in the movie. 'The problem wasn't that the script had things we don't tolerate at the academy,' Cmdr. Bob Anderson, the Navy's liaison to the film industry, told The Washington Post. 'The problem was there was no accountability. The offenders weren't held responsible for their misconduct.'"

"The word preposterous came to mind several times as I watched Annapolis," writes Tom Neven (Plugged In). He mentions that the film "feels more like a recruiting video than a major motion picture," and concludes, "There are positive lessons and feel-good moments in this story. But you have to fight your way through a whole lot of canned nonsense and some dodgy language to rescue them."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, "Too bad that what is achieved—in a time of war, at a military academy—is boxing glory. After hinting that the story will revolve around ideas of working together to achieve a common good, the filmmakers settle instead for a story of individual fulfillment, awkwardly trying to tie the main characters' success in the ring to broader principles of military unity."

He adds, "Annapolis uses the guise of the military to tell yet another story of a young man who triumphs against the odds. [Main character Jake] Huard isn't transformed into a war-ready Naval officer, but is honed—through boxing—into a potential officer. By the film's conclusion, he's ready for little more than another year at the Academy. Is that a message you're willing to spend nine bucks to hear?"

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None of this stops Bob Rossiter (Christian Spotlight) from proclaiming, "Those who enjoy patriotic, hero stories will probably appreciate this movie. I sure did."

More reviews of recent releases

The New World: Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) makes a remarkable comparison between The New World and The Passion of the Christ, and then concludes, "Without a doubt, the most polarizing aspect of Malick's work is not his politics, but his unique cinematic style, for some a transcendent revelation, for others a crashing bore. I find myself not quite in either camp. Malick's painterly images and meditative voiceovers are not for me the overwhelming force of nature they are for some, but I'm willing to be swept along by them, if what they have to say is potent enough. For me, that makes The New World a partial success, an intriguing if flawed film."

Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Based on the film's trailers, one might expect The New World … to be a politically correct, revisionist drama that pits idyllic 'naturals' against imperialistic white settlers; but those willing to submit themselves to Mr. Malick's lyrical style may find the film is more than it first appears to be." He praises the characters as "unexpected and multilayered."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say, "The New World is a plodding tale with too many untold loose ends. However, the film's saving grace is the captivating acting of young Q'Orianka Kilcher who was only 14 years old when the filming began. Her portrayal of innocence is what makes the story worth seeing."

End of the Spear: Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) write, "Without being either preachy or obvious, the film takes us through the sacrifice given by the missionary families and the effect it had upon the Waodani. The supernatural power of God is present in the moments of sacrifice as well as in the powerful transformation of this vengeful culture."

Matt Wiggins (Relevant) says, "Artistically speaking, End of the Spear is often breathtaking." He says it's "a very good movie that will probably have much more success in the Sunday school classroom than the cineplex, but that's not necessarily a bad thing either. In the final estimation, Spear is a movie that will be enjoyed by Christians and viewed skeptically by everyone else. For us it will be a great reminder of the power of forgiveness and a reminder of why we are called to make disciples of all the world. The story of Steve Saint and Mincayani needs to be told and this is a valid rendition of that tale."