by KYW’s Bill Wine —
It’s not the happiest of returns, unfortunately, because Nanny McPhee returns, all right, but not in triumph.
The sequel to the dark 2006 British family fable brings back the bizarre-looking title character, she of the prominent and unsightly wart, protruding and lonely tooth, unique and unedited unibrow, and bulbous and sizable nose.
Well, if nothing else, she’s certainly easy to recognize. And her sidekick crow and powerful walking stick are, again, weapons in her supernatural arsenal.
This nanny named McPhee, played by Emma Thompson, is a whimsically warped variation on Mary Poppins, but without the spoonful of sugar. As she explains, it’s only when you need her but don’t want her that she appears, and she goes away only when you want her but don’t need her.
She’s a stern governess with magical powers and a tough-love style who earns her well-deserved fee because she can handle the worst-behaved children with the best of them.
And as the children’s behaviors change under her guidance and wisdom, so does their new nanny’s physical appearance. The previously hideous governess suddenly seems fetching.
Her latest assignment takes her to rural England, where put-upon mother and wife Isabel Green, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, tries to cope with her three unruly children, a spoiled pair of cousins visiting from the city, and her scheming, manipulative brother, while she somehow runs the family farm with her husband away fighting in World War II.
But when the kids’ unprincipled Uncle Phil — Isabel’s brother, played by Rhys Ifans — tries to persuade (if not con) his sis to sell her half of the farm so he can cover a huge gambling debt, the family is in for big trouble if the kids, with Nanny McPhee’s help, don’t take matters into their small, resourceful hands.
Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes also turn up in supporting roles to add a dash of warmth and gravitas, respectively, to a cartoonish romp that features pigs that fly and, taking a page from The Great Muppet Caper, participate in a level of synchronized swimming that would make Miss Piggy envious.
As she did in the original, Thompson — the only performer ever to win Oscars for acting (Howards End) and writing (Sense and Sensibility) — also wrote the screenplay, once again loosely based on Christianna Brand’s “Nurse Matilda” books. She keeps herself on the sidelines for longer stretches this trip, as if executive producer Thompson instructed screenwriter Thompson to minimize actress Thompson’s on-screen minutes to avoid overstaying her welcome in a reprised role.
But the problem — and both the script and the performance, both by Thompson, contribute to it — is that the character fails to enchant us and put her stamp on the film, both of which she did much more skillfully and authoritatively in the first outing.
This one, originally titled Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang because of the bomb that eventually figures prominently and dangerously in the wartime plot, will not be adding any Oscars to Thompson’s collection because, although this is a well-intentioned message movie for children (lessons are learned about courage, kindness, selflessness, resolve and leaps of faith) it is not a graceful or impactful entertainment but a strained reprise of an out-of-steam concept.
Susanna White, a television director making her feature-film debut, is after a colorful, stylized charmer. But the pace is so frantic and the interaction so boisterous early on, during the lengthy setup, that all but the youngest of viewers may be headache bound.
We might also stop fondly recalling the quality level of the film’s predecessor so wistfully if the silliness wasn’t so forced, the charm quotient so reduced, and the special effects, mostly involving animals, more expertly and seamlessly integrated.
So we’ll discipline 2 stars out of 4. The cartoonish Nanny McPhee Returns is a tepid followup to a popular kidflick hit, a sequel that doesn’t equal.