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Nanny McPhee Returns (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Run time 110 minutes.

OK for children.

Superhero movies like Spiderman leave me cold, but not Nanny McPhee. Emma Thompson’s introduction of Nanny McPhee as the reincarnation of Nurse Matilda from Christiana Brand’s three books presented Nanny McPhee as a mysterious person with supernatural powers.  Thompson’s first film was based on Brand’s books which began as bedtime stories in Brand’s family, passed down over a century, with each generation adding to the legend of the family’s poorly-behaved children and the superhero nanny who tamed them. Brand wrote them down in three books in the 1960s, and they all dealt with the seven children in one family.

Thompson used up all the ideas in the three books in the first film five years ago, so she had to create an entirely new story, changing Nanny McPhee into a time-traveling supercreature, who spans eras to visit families who need her. Instead of a battle between children and parent, this film presents a battle among children. Thompson’s fine, well-paced script is Oscar®-worthy, throwing in a B story about the children’s mother and aunt in danger of losing the family farm.

However, it retains the premise of the first film, which Nanny McPhee explains, “When you need me but don’t want me, then I must stay. When you want me but don’t need me, then I must leave.”

Nanny still has her facial disfigurations that disappear when the children achieve one of the levels of improvement, so that by the time she leaves she is the beautiful Emma Thompson.

This film is a cross between a story of a superhero and a farce, the latter of which the British do exceedingly well. The cinematography (Mike Ely) is gorgeous and the music (James Newton Howard), so important to the quality of a farce, is exceptional.

The only thing that marred it for me was the casting of Yank actress Maggie Gyllenhaal instead of a Brit as the harried British mother who needs Nanny McPhee desperately. While Gyllenhaal gives a fine performance, there are scores of British actresses who could have played the role, so why cast an American who has to feign a British accent? It was jarring and it was a fly in the ointment every time Gyllenhaal appeared on the screen and said her lines. In addition to the accent, Gyllenhaal said it wasn’t a particularly easy shoot with all the CGI required for the animals. For one three minute scene there were over 100 setups.

But this is a film where the CGI is marvelous. Watching piglets do synchronized swimming á la Esther Williams makes one think that maybe CGI is worth it.

This is a children’s film like Rocky and Bullwinkle was a children’s cartoon. While all of the performances are first rate, Rhys Ifans and Eros Vlahos give wonderfully comedic performances as the bad guy and Gyllenhaal’s spoiled nephew, respectively. Ralph Fiennes makes a nice cameo as Cyril’s strict father.

Inspirationally directed by Susanna White, the music, color, CGI-created animals, cinematography, and message are magical.