When last we visited Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), she was helping frazzled widower Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) to manage his unruly mob of children in Victorian England. Nanny McPhee was a stern, menacing and mysterious figure who dispensed disgusting medicines to malingering little ones and found ways to give wicked kids a taste of their own medicine too. Though she dressed (more or less) like Mary Poppins, she was warty and blobby and had unfortunate teeth. She did not sing. But she was patient and loving, although for Nanny McPhee, love means teaching children to do what's in their own best interest (and to be kind and helpful and all that).
Nanny McPhee is back, warts and all, in Nanny McPhee Returns, although the setting is now the English countryside during World War Two. Nanny McPhee (Thompson) looks none the worse for her decades of caring for misbehaving miscreants. This time around, she's summoned to assist Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a frazzled mother who does her best to keep the family farm afloat while her husband is off fighting in the war. Her three children, Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods), and little Vincent (Oscar Steer) are a bit naughty, but they turn into violent monsters when their haughty, snooty cousins arrive from the city. Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) are ill-mannered brats who instantly judge the farm to be a sea of poo, and their cousins to be poo-wallowing hayseeds. Meanwhile, Isabel is constantly pestered by her brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans), who wants her to sign over her family's half of the farm. Phil's got some hilarious heavies (Sinead Matthews and Katy Brand) leaning on him for the deed to the farm. As has become traditional in *Nanny McPhee* movies, illustrious British thespians make right fools of themselves playing English caricatures. To wit, Maggie Smith is family friend dotty old Mrs. Docherty (who has a secret identity) and Ralph Fiennes turns up as a stodgy, stern, stiff upper lip military man.
Nanny McPhee Returns, written, like the original movie, by Thompson, lacks some of the menace and also some of the charm of the first movie, but this might be in part because the story's essential mystery is gone. The movie's a bit tamer too -- as directed by Susanna White, it lacks the acid colors and vinegary bite of the first movie and opts for a more muted, earthy palette to go with a slightly gentler approach to herding children. One hates to think that Nanny McPhee is becoming a soft touch!
The movie goes for a broad, slapsticky brand of comedy, involving a great deal of barnyard animal waste, and Nanny McPhee makes more liberal use of her unspecified supernatural powers -- she can make children want to behave, but she can also make a motorcycle fly, and, for that matter, she can make pigs fly too. The movie makes more liberal use of compter-generated special effects as it hurtles through the plot and the life lessons. Nanny McPhee Returns, like its predecessor, is chockablock full of twists and turns and antic, frantic activity, embracing the kitchen sink approach to storytelling. Nanny McPhee is always the calm eye of the hurricane, while everyone around her swirls and spins and frets and breaks things, and burps. Did I mention the burping blackbird? His name is Mr. Edelweiss, and he figures prominently in the story's wacky conclusion.
My 8 year old companion to Nanny McPhee Returns is a huge fan of the nanny, and she was not disappointed by the sequel. It's funny, and sweet, and endearingly quirky, with cute kids, cute pigs, and much agricultural mayhem.