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The Independent Critic

Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor, Maggie Smith, Rhys Ifans
Susanna White
Emma Thompson, Christianna Brand (Characters)
Rated PG
109 Mins.
Universal Pictures

  • Deleted Scenes
  • A ton of special effects related add-ons!

 "Nanny McPhee Returns" Review 
It's clear that Emma Thompson loves life inside the world of Nanny McPhee, a self-penned spin-off of characters created by British author Christianna Brand in her Nurse Matilda children's books.

In full disclosure, this critic must admit a strong preference for British children's cinema as opposed to the pop culture-laden, special effects dominated and condescendingly scripted drivel that often passes for children's cinema in the United States. The Brits, more often than not, nail children's cinema with an intelligence, warmth, honesty and respect that is virtually absent from American children's cinema.

Nanny McPhee, which Thompson also starred in and penned, was an absolutely delightful blend of childhood wonder, heartfelt dialogue, genuinely appealing characters and an appropriate intertwining of non-intrusive special effects. While American audiences aren't always known for their adventurous spirit and willingness to hear accents, the 18th century England setting didn't detract audiences from turning the film into a surprise hit.

While it is possible to argue that Nanny McPhee Returns is a modestly inferior film to its predecessor, being a bit more disorganized and a touch too obvious with its gentle morality lessons, Thompson's affection for the wart-laden nanny and the children's whose lives she enters is obvious throughout the film and this sequel may actually be a more emotionally resonant and ultimately satisfying film than its more stoic predecessor.

This film is set in the countryside of 1940's England, far away from the fighting of World War II yet even the countryside cannot seemingly avoid the warring factions of its native country children and a few city slickers who are sent there to avoid the impact of the war.

Nanny McPhee plops herself down this time into the lives of the Green clan, including a frazzled mum (Maggie Gyllenhaal) left to care for the children and the farm while dad (Ewan McGregor in a cameo) is off fighting and her children Norman (Asa Butterfield), Vincent (Oscar Steer) and Megsie (Lil Woods). When the bombs begin to hit too close to home, the Green's richer and more obnoxious cousins arrive much to the dismay of all involved. Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Pitson) aren't quite accustomed to a more rugged lifestyle and, before Nanny McPhee can tap her walking stick, the two camps of youngsters set to feuding.

If you've seen Nanny McPhee or read the Nurse Matilda books, then you likely already have an idea of the lessons that are about to unfold as Nanny McPhee unleashes her own brand of special effects-laden tough love on these youngsters with lessons designed to teach sharing, cooperation, good behavior, empathy and more. 

The lessons in Nanny McPhee Returns feel more obvious and intentional than they did in the original film, perhaps owing to the original film's director Kirk Jones's ability to better balance moralizing dialogue with childhood wonder. While Nanny McPhee returns never becomes overwhelmed by its special effects, there are times that it seems director Susanna White is more willing to rely solely on the entertainment value of special effects rather than the interplay between characters.

It's not that the special effects aren't wonderfully, indeed they are quite beautiful to behold and do possess an abundance of warmth and charm. Pigs swim and fly, statues come vividly to life and and motorcycles fly in this more souped up Nanny McPhee adventure.

While one can certainly find fault with the script and, perhaps, a bit of over-reliance on not always effective cinematic gimmicks, Emma Thompson's return in the lead role remains an enthralling and entertaining experience.  Maggie Gyllenhaal, who was nominated for an Oscar despite a slightly off southern accent in Crazy Heart, is much more convincing as the flustered maternal figure over this group of warring children.  Ralph Fiennes has a relatively minor role as the father of the cousins, however, he makes a lasting impression when on screen. Maggie Smith is a hoot as a rather chaotic shopkeeper, though Rhys Ifans is a bit more hit-and-miss as an uncle with a gambling problem and a bit too evil of a spirit for this mostly kind-hearted film.

Tech credits are generally fine, most notably the camera work of Mike Eley and Simon Elliott's time appropriate and wondrously mood setting production design. James Newton Howard's thundering original score, on the other hand, comes off too heavy-handed for the lighter energy of this material.

Nanny McPhee Returns has more heart than its predecessor, but director Susanna White doesn't have quite the grasp of Thompson's script as did Kirk Jones and doesn't always nail the balance between special effects and human impact. That said, at its worst Nanny McPhee Returns is superior to the majority of American children's films released in 2010.

Rumor has it that Emma Thompson is already at work on a third in the Nanny McPhee's hoping the heart remains and the magic returns the next time Nanny McPhee comes to town.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic