With Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes. Directed by Susanna White. Rated PG for rude humor, some language and mild thematic elements.. 109 minutes.
A quick show of hands: how many of you who saw “Nanny McPhee” were demanding a sequel? One of the worst children’s films of recent years, it was something most people hoped would be quickly forgotten. However, Emma Thompson, an incredibly talented actress and writer elsewhere, apparently enjoying playing this hideously ugly Mary Poppins so much, she had to do it again in NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS. And she’s persuaded a surprisingly talented cast to join her in this awful enterprise. She must be dazzlingly persuasive in person.
For those of you fortunate enough to have missed the first one, Nanny McPhee (Thompson) shows up to tend to horrid brats. As they learn to be polite and share and other good things, her haglike features disappear. When she finally looks like a normal person in a horrendously frumpy black dress, it’s time for her to go.
In this outing, World War II is raging and Isabel Green (an oddly cast Maggie Gyllenhaal) is trying to save the family farm while her husband (Ewan McGregor) is off at war. Her own three children (Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods) are barely tolerable. Then her spoiled niece and nephew (Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Eros Vlahos) arrive, leading to much pandemonium. This is the cue for Nanny McPhee.
We know from the outset that after early scenes of using her magical powers to torture the obnoxious brats they will be transformed into lovable and cooperative darlings. Less explicable are the subplots. In one a brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) is trying to sell the farm to pay off his gambling debts in order to avoid having his kidneys removed by two hit women. Then there’s the dotty shopkeeper (Maggie Smith) who hires Isabel to help out in the store and who seems to be in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. In a film filled with the sorts of barnyard poop jokes that children – and apparently the British – find endlessly amusing, we are treating to Smith deliberately sitting on a pile of cow droppings. It’s not the sort of clip they’ll be playing at the Oscars.
By the time Ralph Fiennes has his cameo has the head of the British war effort and the children get on the job training in disarming unexploded bombs, you may decide that Thompson has taken leave of her senses. She appears normal when you see her interviewed, but what sort of mind thinks this sort of material is children’s entertainment? Indeed, it seems as if she particularly has it in for any parents who have the misfortune of being dragged along to see it.
We’re warned in “Nanny McPhee Returns” that when we need her but don’t want her, she will stay, but when we want her but don’t need her she has to go. Perhaps that’s it. In some perverse way she seems to be signaling us that the only way to prevent a third movie in the series is to make this one a big success. Unfortunately, it’s a sacrifice most people won’t be willing to make.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.