Nanny McPhee Returns

Movie Information

The Story: The indomitable Nanny McPhee comes to set things right on an English farm during wartime. The Lowdown: An agreeable family fantasy that benefits from strong casting and a solid screenplay, but never rises to the level of being remarkable, just very likable.
Genre: Fantasy
Director: Susanna White
Starring: Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maggie Smith, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes
Rated: PG

It was called Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang in the UK and was changed to the lackluster Nanny McPhee Returns for stateside consumption. I’m not sure why, unless it was thought the original title might be taken the wrong way, or send creationists into a tizzy. Whatever the case and by whatever name, this was easily the most agreeable of the five movies that opened last week. Naturally, it came in near the bottom at the box office for the opening weekend.

This isn’t to say that Nanny McPhee Returns is any kind of a great movie. It certainly isn’t, and it isn’t as stylish, colorful or effective as Kirk Jones’ original Nanny McPhee (2005). Part of the problem is that unlike the first film, this doesn’t manage to create a true sense of a separate world for the film. It tries—with its quirky blend of picture-book rural England and a mud-and-manure morass of a farmyard that’s right out of an earthy version of Cold Comfort Farm (yet strangely never intrudes on the cozy farmhouse itself). But somehow some indefinable magic of the first film is missing. There’s also too much CGI cuteness—the pigs are far worse than the donkey from the first film (not to mention that no one seems to realize they’re incipient bacon). And there’s an abundance of body-function humor.

Still, all in all, this is a sweet-tempered film with characters it’s possible to care about—even while they pass through predictable situation after predictable situation. The first-rate cast undeniably helps, though much of the credit goes to Emma Thompson’s screenplay, which manages to be literate without being too complex for its target audience—and is mercifully without a trace of postmodern hipness. Then again, Thompson is almost certainly responsible for being able to assemble the high-toned collection of British actors in the first place, so it really is pretty much her show.

The story this time is set in what appears to be World War II England (the film never quite specifies this), where young Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal being very credibly British) is having to cope with a failing farm, a husband off at war (a little-seen Ewan McGregor), three children of her own and two impending ones from relatives in London, a dotty boss (Maggie Smith) and a venal brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) who will do anything to sell the farm to pay off his gambling debts. What she needs—as voices keep telling her after her boss, Mrs. Docherty, put a shipment of syrup away by pouring it into stock drawers—is Nanny McPhee (Thompson).

Much like her predecessor in the first film, Isabel resists the idea—even after she returns home to find that the two impending children are snobbish brats who’ve arrived a day early. However, in the end, Isabel is given no real choice, since Nanny McPhee doesn’t take no for an answer. In fact, she doesn’t wait for an answer. The fact that she’s a forbidding figure—frumpy, with a single eyebrow, a bulbous nose, a snaggletooth and warts various and sundry—who wields a magical walking stick probably allows her this liberty.

Of course, the whole point of the Nanny McPhee character is to teach children not to take things at face value, since she seems quite monstrous at first, but really is anything but. That, in fact, is the underlying theme of the whole film, especially as concerns the snobbish nature of the young London refugees, but it extends even to the dottiness of Mrs. Docherty. The revelations are hardly staggering in their originality, but they’re believable. And they’re certainly things it can hurt no young person to encounter.

As said, this isn’t a great film, but it’s a nice one. I had a perfectly agreeable time watching it. I was involved with the characters. I was occasionally touched. It’s unlikely I’ll ever see it again, but I’m good with having seen it once—and if I had young children, I wouldn’t object if they dragged me to it a second time. Rated PG for rude humor, some language and mild thematic elements.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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