Nanny McPhee Returns
Grade: B –
Director: Susanna White
Starring: Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, Asa Butterfield, Bill Bailey, and Sam Kelly
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
When Nanny McPhee Returns to play governess for another harried English mother, the three children of Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are in the midst of fighting the Grays, their two snooty, city cousins. When the youngsters ignore McPhee’s (Emma Thompson) order to cease and desist, one thump of her magic walking stick sends the kids into self-harming convulsions. Two start pulling their own hair or ears; Megsie Green (Lil Woods) cannot stop banging her own head on the floor; Cyril Gray (Eros Vlahos) flips his body in repeated pratfalls; little Vincent Green (Oscar Steer) takes a wood paddle to the family crockery.
For all the later imagery of synchronized swimming piglets and rocket-powered motorbikes, this initial encounter is hard to shake. McPhee releases the children from her spell only after they beg and promise to stop misbehaving. The implication is that the children have gotten their just desserts; some might call it child abuse. Regardless, Isabel looks on in amazement when each child calmly marches off to bed, wishing her good night along the way. Deportment is an easy virtue to embrace when you’re afraid Nanny McPhee is going to make you gouge your own eyes out.
The snaggletooth deus ex machina drop by to help Isabel as she struggles raise her children, hold down a job, and save the family farm from her duplicitous brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) while her husband is off fighting World War II. The look and structure of the film, like its predecessor, remains a cross between Roald Dahl and George Miller’s Babe films, although it does not duplicate the creativity of the former or the humanism of the latter.
CG renderings of baby elephants and acrobatic swine have the feel of a children’s storybook; not so much the flatulent cows and McPhee’s belching jackdaw. Indeed, the plodding plotline feels freest when McPhee, Cyril, and Norman Green (Asa Butterfield) escape the farm for a trip to the War Office to ascertain the condition of Norman’s father.
The cast is first-rate, particularly Thompson, Vlahos, Maggie Smith as Isabel’s seemingly daft employee Mrs. Docherty, and Ralph Fiennes’ brief cameo as a ramrod war commander and Cyril’s absentee father. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, provides her usual overemoting and a put-on English accent as thick as the pig poo covering Isabel’s front yard.
While not as rewarding as its predecessor, Nanny McPhee Returns is a simple, unadorned fable that makes for easy family viewing. Still, the continuum of McPhee again swooping in to scare some manners into a gaggle of brats leaves you feeling like you’re not watching Mary Poppins-lite as much as an episode of Supernanny.