Movie Review - Nanny McPhee Returns (***)

 

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Nanny McPhee Returns.  Directed by Susanna White.  Written by Emma Thompson.  Starring Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes, and Ewan McGregor.

I'm not sure that the world needed another Nanny McPhee movie - or who was asking for one exactly - but here it is, and it's not that bad.  It doesn't insult children's intelligence too much, it has a roster of top-flight British actors (almost all of them borrowed from the Harry Potter series), and, at times, it achieves a sense of wonder and magic that most kids' films today are sorely missing.

Emma Thompson wrote the movie and stars as Nanny McPhee, the seemingly ugly, wart-ridden, buck-toothed taskmaster who whips a bunch of unruly kids into shape, teaching them life lessons as she grows more beautiful along the way.  Her tagline: when you need her and don't want her, she must stay.  When you want her and no longer need her, she must leave.  This time around, Nanny McPhee is sent to help a harried mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal - what's she doing in this?) take care of her three kids and their two cousins, while the family farm is in danger and her husband is off at war.  

Set during World War II, the movie is quaint and retro in its charms.  Ralph Fiennes has an excellent bit late in the movie, as the cousins' stern, but caring father.  The child actors are decent and manage to avoid being annoying for the most part.  There's a silly, but effective sequence where pigs fly and do a synchronized swim in a watering hole.  The character of Nanny McPhee is often sidelined in her own movie though - she's not in it much, and when she is, she doesn't make much of an impression.  I think Thompson gave herself more to do in the first film.

Nanny McPhee Returns is also rather (refreshingly) strange, doing things that seem a tad out of place for a family movie: Rhys Ifans' uncle character wants to sell the farm because he's threatened with kidney removal; the kids have to defuse a bomb at the end, etc.  My 2 year-old loved it all, surprisingly.  Maybe it was all the farm animals - or the baby elephant that Nanny McPhee conjures up from time to time.  Maybe it was the kids acting like real kids on screen - playing, fighting, hugging their mom.  Whatever it was, it worked for him.  Parents could do a lot worse (and often have this year).

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