Imagine Mary Poppins with a W.C. Field’s nose, a fanglike front tooth and earlobes big enough to land a 747 on and you have Nanny McPhee, the magical babysitter who shows up only “when you need her but do not want her.” She teaches each of her family’s five lessons and with each lesson learned one of her facial markings disappears until she ends up looking like Emma Thompson (who also wrote and produced the film) by the time the credits roll.
Set in wartime Britain, “Nanny McPhee Returns” revolves around Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a young mother of three trying to raise her kids and run the family farm while her husband is off at war. She’s also trying to keep the farm out of the hands of her scheming brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) who will stop at nothing to convince her to sign over her half of the land so he can pay off gambling debts. Add to the mix two snotty cousins from London, some acrobatic pigs, an unexploded German bomb and you have a family primed for spinster Nanny McPhee’s unique brand of care giving.
“Nanny McPhee Returns” is a fantasy for kids that is more about the life lessons than it is about the title character. The kids learn about good behavior and cooperation while McPhee lurks in the background, almost disappearing completely from the movie for a long stretch in the middle. Which is just as well. As wonderful as Thompson is, a little of the Nanny goes a long way, but luckily the movie is brimming with appealing character and winning performances.
As Isabel, Gyllenhaal proves she has a Gwyneth Paltrow-like facility with English accents. She’s wonderful as the kind hearted but frazzled mother, but really delivers in the movie’s emotional moments. She brings a realism to certain scenes that isn’t often found in kid’s entertainment.
At the other end of the scale is Ifans who, as the villain, seems to have lurched off the stage from the local Christmas pantomime. He plays Uncle Phil as broadly as possible, but somehow it works. The subtlety and nuance of his recent work in movies like “Greenberg” is absent, replaced with a delicious sense of fun. If this was a live show the audience would boo every time he stepped on stage.
The real draw, however, is the kids. As Cyril, a pompous little twit who learns to be… well, less of a pompous little twit, Eros Vlahos is a mini Benny Hill in the making, with great comic timing and a way with a line. The other kids, Vincent (Oscar Steer), Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods), and Celia (Rose Taylor-Ritson) more than capably hold the screen, playing against Oscar winners and heavy weights like Ralph Fiennes and Maggie Smith.
Even though “Nanny McPhee Returns” gets a little CGI silly near the end it is a crowd pleasing mix of gentle humor, fantasy—check out the pigs as they take a page from the Esther Williams playbook—and family fun.