After pulling the Brown brood into shape, a magical governess senses the need of Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal, "The Dark Knight," "Crazy Heart"), a young mother trying to run a farm and raise small children while her husband is away at war. The Green kids and their obnoxious city cousins will learn five lessons when "Nanny McPhee Returns."
"Nanny McPhee" was a bit of an odd duck, so it seems even odder that writer/star Emma Thompson returns with a sequel a long five years later. It gets odder. I don't think Maggie Gyllenhaal has ever been as radiantly sexy as she is here as a harried mother trying to cope with five kids, the demands of a farm and assisting addled town dry grocer Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith, the "Harry Potter" series). Rhys Ifans ("Pirate Radio") plays broadly as her evil brother-in-law Phil who's trying to get her to sell her husband's share of the farm to cover gambling debts. If he doesn't get the money, he'll either have his kidneys removed by Miss Topsey (Sinead Matthews, "Pirate Radio") or get the taxidermist treatment from Miss Turvey (Katy Brand). It's a particularly British pot of grue and the WWII backdrop oozes the Union Jack as well. Unfortunately it seems a universality that people who make children's films believe they are most entertained by excrement and this farm is mired in it. I for one didn't need to see Maggie Smith reduced to mistaking a cow pat for a cushion, then wiggling around in it.
Poo jokes aside, though, "Nanny McPhee Returns" has more to recommend it than not. This magical nanny is no Mary Poppins. She arrives with multiple warts, a large nose, unibrow and frizzy hair taking aback those she meets. She firmly tells Mrs. Green, who clearly needs her despite her protestations, that she's been dispatched by the Army. While Isabel makes tea, Nanny McPhee ('small C, big P') teaches the children the first lesson - not to fight - aided by her magic walking stick which enchants the children into beating themselves up until they apologize to those they'd been tormenting. (Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia Gray (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) have been sent to their aunt because of the London bombing and they resent their 'hillbilly' cousins who in turn do not have use for their persnickety ways.)
While the 2nd two lessons flow into the story line, even McPhee seems surprised by four and five as they spring from unplanned events of the war. But the children's gradual mutual understanding and support is surprisingly affecting, especially in a scene where Cyril aids Norman (Asa Butterfield, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas") by taking the boy to see his father, Lord Gray (Ralph Fiennes), highly placed in the British War Office. Young Vlahos is the epitome of a tweedy Brit in training and gives a notable performance. There are also delightful CGI animals. Piglets climb trees and perform synchronized swimming. Mr. Eidelweiss, a raven on Nanny's, er, blacklist for his fondness for eating window putty, saves the day when the middle Green child, Megsie (Lil Woods), attempts to defuse a bomb. Isabel's wedding dress gets an unusual workout and is a lovely means for a segue to a wedding day flashback (Ewan McGregor plays the husband away at war).
"Nanny McPhee Returns" isn't as even as the first film, but if anything it's even more distinct in its refusal to be just another G-rated family friendly piece of pap. Emma Thompson's weirdly winning Nanny is more fun than Julie Andrews' goodie two shoes.
Robin did not see this film.
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