When Nanny McPhee Returns premiered five months ago in the UK, it was called Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, referring to a somewhat explosive climax. It’s anyone’s guess why Universal changed the title for American release. Spoiler-alert sensitivity? Scary intimations of scientific intellectualism? Scary intimations of nannies being naughty in the boudoir?
At any rate, Nanny McPhee Returns invites us back to the franchise commanded by ever-clever Emma Thompson, who scripted, stars, and executive produces. One is always in good hands with Thompson, even in this kiddie franchise loosely adapted from Christianna Brand’s trilogy of Nurse Matilda novels. 2006’s Nanny McPhee corresponded in plot to the books, but Nanny McPhee Returns diverges to tell a new story with a new family.
On the other hand, the new story is a lot like the old story. Again, the bulbous-nosed, unibrowed, bucktoothed, portly, warty Nanny McPhee spirits into the life of a needy family. Again, she imparts five lessons to a brood of unruly English moppets, her superficially unattractive features fading away to reveal Thompson’s natural beauty. But this time McPhee visits the working-class Green family on their Deer Valley Farm: mother Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and kids Megsie (Lil Woods), Norman (Asa Butterfield) and Vincent (Oscar Steer). An unspecified war means that Mr. Green is away in a danger; thus, tensions are running high (the circumstances and style suggests the ‘40s, but in a modernistic time warp).
Tensions run so high that the arrival of rich cousins Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) Gray, sent to the country to dodge a London blitz, triggers a civil war between the Green and the Gray. Thompson is after a lesson in harmony for adults and kids: war is not the answer. Hence “Lesson One: To stop fighting.” Ironically, McPhee claims to be “an army nanny…I have been deployed.” With the loss of the farm a clear and present danger, the plot touches on recession fears as well as war, but with a little faith and a lot of help from her magic walking stick, the sly governess contains the situation and helps the children to grow into themselves.
Thompson and director Susanna White appropriately conspire to keep McPhee somewhat in the background (she should leave us, like the kids, wanting more); though she plays it close to the frock, Nanny McPhee has an emotional attentiveness to kids at their best and at their lowest. Thompson nicely underplays this sensitivity as well as the comedy. She also hauls in some top British talent for potent supporting roles and cameos: Maggie Smith, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Bailey, and Ewan McGregor.
For the kids, there’s not only the sobering reminder that they're works in progress but also lots of pratfalls and fairy-tale magic, with a touch of Babe’s farm charm (pigs that fly and do Busby Berkeley choreography). Like the kids, we’re left with the reminder that Nanny McPhee is a rolling stone with one overriding lesson: you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]