Nanny McPhee Returns (Universal Pictures, PG)

Then things pick up and I found myself alternately charmed, amused, and moved by this story of wartime England and even impressed by the efficient methodology by which the film sneaks in life lessons whose virtues are above reproach.

For the first fifteen minutes or so of Nanny McPhee Returns I was considering if Emma Thompson and company wouldn’t have been better off accepting the unexpected success of the first screen appearance of Mary Poppins’ sterner sister and quit while they were ahead. In other words, the new picture is slow out of the gate with lots of pointless displays of childhood brattiness and unfunny slapstick.

Then things pick up and I found myself alternately charmed, amused, and moved by this story of wartime England and even impressed by the efficient methodology by which the film sneaks in life lessons whose virtues are above reproach. The progress of the story can be a bit ragged but it’s mostly entertaining without letting you forget what’s at stake. Final confession: I find it hard to say anything bad about a film which features pigs who not only fly but do Esther Williams routines in the local pond.

In case you missed her first incarnation, Nanny McPhee is a creation of Emma Thompson (who wrote the script as well as playing the role) based on the character of Nurse Matilda in a series of books written by Christianna Brand. She’s hideously ugly (Hollywood-style) when you first see her (accompanied, appropriately enough, by a clap of thunder) and is dressed forbiddingly in black and accompanied by a crow who is her familiar. This being a kid’s movie the crow belches a lot.

One thing you must understand about Nanny McPhee: when you need her but don’t want her she will turn up on your doorstep, while when you want her but don’t need her she will go. Isabel Green (a very good Maggie Gyllenhaal) definitely needs her. She’s struggling to keep her farm running while her husband is off fighting the war and her kids Norman, Meggsie and Vincent (Asa Butterfeld, Lil Woods and Oscar Steer) would rather squabble among themselves than be helpful. Matters only get worse with the arrival of their even brattier city cousins Cyril and Celia (Eros Vlahos, who resembles nothing so much as a miniature Oscar Wilde and Rosie Taylor-Ritson). Finally there’s Isabel’s spiv brother Phil (Rhys Ifans) who keeps trying to get her to sell the farm because (unbeknownst to her) he needs the money to pay off a gambling debt and he’s being pursued by two debt collectors named Miss Topsey and Miss Turvey (Sinead Matthews and Katy Brand) who threaten to take his kidneys.

Nanny McPhee has a way with misbehaving children. No shouting matches, just direct orders (she claims a military background). If that doesn’t work, she taps her walking stick on the floor and everything changes. Kids who were hitting each other start hitting themselves. Kids who said they’d rather share their bed with a goat than with their cousin find that their wish has been granted. Once they learn their lessons she puts everything back to rights: even smashed crockery is magically mended. And wouldn’t you know that they find it’s more fun to share, work together and so on than to always be squabbling.

The kids have lots of adventures, from rounding up escaped piglets to venturing to the War Department to track down news of their missing father. I’m pleased to say that the girls get their share of the action and Meggsie, who is seldom seen without her tool belt, snips the critical wires which defuse a bit of unexploded ordnance and save everyone from being blown to kingdom come. There are also lots of cultural references which will please nostalgic Anglophiles including ginger beer, Fair Isle sweaters, wellies and a sidecar motorbike. There’s also a nice little Cook’s Tour of London, a charming village complete with charming shop run by the eccentric Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith) and some luscious shots of the English countryside which has never looked greener or more pleasant.

Here’s a final word to the wise: stay for the credit sequence. Not only is there some great stop-motion animation courtesy of VooDooDog (Noel and Paul Donnellon and David Z. Obadiah), there’s also a credit cookie near the very end. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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