Thursday, August 19, 2010

Review: "Nanny McPhee Returns"

Just a few weeks ago I was reviewing "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" and lamenting that movies made for the very youngest children always seem to aim so low. It's almost as if because the intended audience is small, filmmakers feel like their ambitions must likewise be puny.

And then along comes another sequel, "Nanny McPhee Returns," to demonstrate how family films can actually be enjoyable for the entire family.

In case you didn't catch the first movie from five years ago, Emma Thompson wrote both screenplays (based on a series of books by Christianna Brand) and stars as the stern and horrendously ugly titular character. Always sent to the worst families in England, Nanny McPhee goes where she is needed but not wanted, but as soon as she is wanted but not needed, off she goes again.

McPhee is part Mary Poppins, in that her nanny skills are augmented by supernatural powers, but no spoonfuls of sugar to be found here. She doesn't sing either, preferring a stern look and a grunt to get her point across.

If things really get out of hand, she bangs her magic walking stick on the ground, and higgledy-piggledy ensues, usually followed by life lessons. (The film was originally titled "Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang," which is much better.)

The first film took place sometime in the 1800s, and for the sequel the action has moved up to World War II. Young mother Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal, doing a snappy British lilt) is up to her neck running her husband's farm while he's off fighting in the war, looking after their three children, Vincent, Norman and Megsie (Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield and Lil Woods).

Things go from chaotic to unmanageable when Isabel's rich niece and nephew, Cyril and Celia, come to stay (played by Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson). "We're in the land of poo," Cyril observes from their limousine upon surveying the Green farm. Things between the cousins grow worse from there.

Nanny McPhee soon arrives -- ostensibly dispatched by the Army -- to take charge of the situation.

There's a lot of charming antics going on. The prize piglets escape from their pen and must be rounded up, but not before engaging in a little synchronized swimming. Isabel's scheming brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) is out to sell the farm, because he's got a pair of hitwomen (you read that right) after him for gambling debts.

Maggie Smith shows up as Isabel's forgetful employer, who has a tendency to sit in cow patties and fill up filing cabinets with syrup. And I got a kick out of the helpful manual published by the War Department, "Defusing Your Bomb: Three Simple Steps to an Explosion-Free Day."

The gag is that Nanny McPhee's warts, snaggletooth and other gruesome features disappear as the children learn to behave. There's even a suggestion that she's been at this for some time (watch for Maggie Smith to flash a familiar token).

This film is rated PG, though I cannot conceive of it offending anyone, unless you consider a burping bird to be risqué material.

"Nanny McPhee Returns" may not be the most original material, but director Susanna White pitches the tone just perfectly, a combination of fairy and morality tales. Compared to so much of the dim-bulb rubbish churned out for tots, it practically qualifies as enchanted.

3 stars out of four

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