Nanny McPhee Returns
What It Is
“I’m managing perfectly well,” protests Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) at the start of Nanny McPhee Returns. Even as she says it, you know she doesn’t believe it. And neither do you, for you have seen the meltdowns preceding: her kids are fighting, her house is a mess, her farm is falling apart, she can’t make her tractor payments, and her husband (Ewan McGregor) is away at war.
All this means Izzie isn’t quite “managing perfectly well.” And so it’s a good thing she’s talking to Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), just arrived on her doorstep on a dark and windy night. As she did in her first film, when she came to the rescue of the widowed Mr. Brown (Colin Firth), Nanny McPhee takes charge of unruly children. Again, she looks ugly, with moles and crooked teeth, and becomes more appealing as the children learn their lessons.
These lessons begin right away as Nanny McPhee finds the children chasing and hitting each other. She tells all of them, Izzie’s three children — Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Vincent (Oscar Steer) — plus two cousins visiting from London, Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), that they must stop fighting. When they refuse, Nanny McPhee hits the floor with her walking stick and reveals her mighty powers.
These powers are magic, and she uses them to teach five lessons over the course of the film. Learning to share, they sleep in their beds with adorable cows and elephants; learning to help each other, they enjoy some very fanciful synchronized swimming performed by (digitized) piglets; and, learning to be brave, they disarm a bomb that drops inadvertently into their barley field.
Even as the children are increasingly generous and cooperative, their efforts to help Izzie save the farm are countered by her egregiously self-absorbed brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans). A gambler, he’s bet the farm he only half owns and lost it. As a result, he spends most of his time conniving to pay off a pair of scary lady collectors. The cartoonish villainy of Miss Topsey (Sinead Matthews) and Miss Turvy (Katy Brand) sets them apart from the delightful, hardworking, and infinitely patient Izzie.
Why It’s Fun
In a word, the children are terrific. The young actors are plausible and poignant, whether they’re responding to each other (Norman and Cyril share stories about their fathers) or Nanny McPhee’s sometimes grandiose magic (a flying motorcycle, flying pigs, and stone statues that salute her).
While Nanny McPhee can seem rather stern, she is, of course, at heart a warm and affectionate mother figure. She helps the Greens work through their fears (about their absent dad, the farm’s disarray, and their mother having to work too hard) and to act like happy kids, to play and laugh in scenes that are genuinely fun to watch.
The film offers antic and colorful views of the mucky barn and muddy yard (filled with amusing farm animals), as well as the grassy fields where the children gambol. All this underlines the relative peace of the countryside compared to the city, where, you’re reminded, bombs are dropping.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the first film will be fond of this one too, as it delivers the same sorts of broad comedy. The kids and Phil engage in spills and pratfalls, Nanny McPhee’s crow provides many belches (she scolds him for eating window putty, the source of his gas), and Misses Topsey and Turvy appear in alarming close-ups that showcase their vivid red lipstick and big fake blond hair.
As the kids’ fights are especially noisy (and early on, just a little bloody), their bonding is especially cute and speedy, a particularly effective combination for younger viewers.
What To Be Aware Of
On his way to the farm for the first time, Cyril vomits in the car: this occurs below frame, but his sister and their driver both react to the stench.
The movie’s most frequent joke has to do with “poo.” As soon as Cyril arrives at the farm, he calls it a “British museum of poo,” then goes on to deem his cousins “poo people,” and Norman especially, a “poo-man.” The poo effects are visceral, using sound as well as visuals: a series of close-ups show the kids’ boots going splat-splat in the muck and a few scenes later, the ditzy shopkeeper Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith), makes herself comfortable on a cow patty in a field, believing it’s a cushion set out for her at a picnic.
Phil’s shenanigans veer into downright meanness, when he forges a telegram from the Army to suggest (falsely) that his own brother is dead, in order to drive Izzie into selling the farm. It is a cruel lie and causes definite trauma for the family, though almost made up for when she learns he’s only missing, not “killed in action.” Gyllenhaal’s display of tearful happiness is completely moving.
While Norman is fretful over his father’s well being, Cyril has other sorts of tensions with his father (underused Ralph Fiennes), an imperious, decidedly unfriendly officer with the War Office. Sad to say, Cyril deduces that his parents are indeed divorcing, and he yells at his father — quite eloquently — concerning the pain he’s caused his wife and children.
Cyril, at his most obnoxious, uses the word “hell.”
7 out of 10
Nanny McPhee Returns
Director: Susanna White
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, Rhys Ifans, Eros Vlahos, Ralph Fiennes, Lil Woods, Asa Butterfield, Oscar Steer
Studio: Universal Pictures
US Premiere: August 20, 2010
UK Premiere: March 26, 2010