Isabel Green is doing the best she can. Her husband is off fighting in the British Army, and it's up to her to corral their three unruly children, manage the struggling family farm, and earn grocery money by working a day job at the town's general store. Once two more youngsters are added to the mix—the Greens' snooty niece and nephew from London—it's clear Isabel has more on her hands than she can handle. When she reaches her wit's end after a particular trying day, every cupboard and tea-pot in the general store comes to life with a clear and emphatic message: "The person you need is Nanny McPhee."
Viewers familiar with the original Nanny McPhee (2006) can guess what happens next. A warty, uni-browed, snaggle-toothed governess—equal parts Mary Poppins, Supernanny, and Ugly Betty—arrives at Isabel's doorstep and informs the harried young mother that the army has sent her to teach the children five important lessons. Isabel's alarm and suspicion quickly turn to gratitude when, within an hour, the nanny has used her magical powers to impart Lesson One: To Stop Fighting. While the children try to determine whether their new caregiver is using wartime secrets to overpower them, a relieved Isabel agrees to let the mysterious nanny continue with her lessons. As the ragtag family deals with the threat of war, a missing father, and the looming loss of the farm, Nanny McPhee progresses quickly from the children's nemesis to their ally in a series of quirky adventures.
As in the original, Nanny McPhee Returns is the brainchild of Emma Thompson, who stars in the title role and wrote the screenplay. (Read our 2006 interview.) Wisely, Thompson stays faithful to the formula that fueled the original Nanny McPhee (and the Nurse Matilda books which inspired it). The nanny must use her magic to teach the children a series of lessons. With every lesson learned, one disfiguring aspect of the nanny's countenance is healed, until the children see the beauty in not only the person but also in the authority and right living she represents. Eventually, the children—now not only better behaved but braver too—are equipped to save the day for the somewhat hapless adults around them.
Where sequels normally suffer in the shadows of the films that spawned them, Nanny McPhee Returns actually runs with its predecessor's formula and becomes something better. Anyone who has read a child a bedtime story knows that kids love repetition and the satisfaction that comes from having some idea what will happen next. Viewers who have seen the first Nanny McPhee now have the gratification of being in on the jokes and secrets of the second—they know what's going on long before the characters in the story, and there's something enjoyable about that. Furthermore, this familiarity allows the filmmakers to play with the audience's expectations and create a surprise or two along the way—as in a scene where viewers are led to wrongly assume that a familiar silhouette in the doorway signifies the arrival of the nanny.
Director Susanna White, best known for her work in British television, is to be commended for bringing a lightness and swiftness that the first film was sometimes lacking. The cast helps too. As Isabel, Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart, The Dark Knight) manages a consistent-sounding British accent and a luminous presence that brings warmth to the story. The child actors—especially Asa Butterfield as Norman Green—bring real spark and humanity to their broadly drawn characters. British television actor Bill Bailey is outstandingly funny as a local farmer with a great admiration for the intelligence of pigs. And Emma Thomson's influence in the film community is evidenced by the bevy of respected actors who provide delightful supporting and cameo roles in the film, including Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor, and Dame Maggie Smith.
Less successful is the normally sharp Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, Enduring Love), who plays the film's villain in the form of Isabel's grating brother-in-law Phil. A co-owner of the farm, Phil is desperate to sell it in order to pay off a gambling debt, and he spends the entire movie trying to convince Isabel to sign papers relinquishing the family homestead. The storyline surrounding Phil and the two creepy "hit women" sent to obtain either Phil's farm or his kidneys is more annoying and border-line disturbing than funny, although it does provide the necessary adversity to fuel the story.
Still, tiresome villain aside, Nanny McPhee Returns is a success. It starts off a bit slowly, exploiting the barnyard storyline to make ten or twenty too many jokes about "poo." But soon, the film begins picking up a delightfully silly head of steam. Before long—right around the time CGI-rendered piglets become acrobatic synchronized swimmers—the charm of the cast, the whimsy and heart of the story, the playfulness of the Burton-esque set design, and the absurdity (and British-ness) of the humor all conspire to make the return of this magic nanny a sparkling, winking, whirling dervish of family fun.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Why do you think Nanny McPhee looked more beautiful the longer she was with the children? Do you think the lessons we learn affect not only how we act, but also how we see other people?
- Was Cyril right to confront his father? What should a son or daughter do when he or she believes a parent is wrong?
- What do you think about stories with elements of magic in them? Is it OK for Christians to enjoy them? Are there any stories about magic or supernatural powers you have chosen not to read or watch? Why or why not?
The Family Corner
Nanny McPhee Returns is rated PG for rude humor, some language, and mild thematic elements. The film has no profanity but lots of scatological humor (mostly to do with the digestive systems of animals) and, in the children's unruly phase, plenty of impolite conversation and name-calling. It is virtually free of sexual content or innuendo. The fantastical elements and occasional sense of peril may be frightening for young children.
Photos © Universal Studios.
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