Nanny McPhee, the homely yet exemplary governess, is back. Why? Hard to say, but one thing is certain: Writer-star Emma Thompson didn't do it for the kids.
Oh sure, Nanny McPhee Returns purports to be a children's movie, with five plucky preteen protagonists, numerous pratfalls, abundant rude noises and vast quantities of animal poop. But it's primarily an opportunity for upscale British actors to exercise their broadest gestures, and to have some fun with both "Englishness" and the ever hilarious World War II.
Adapted by Thompson from Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda character, Nanny McPhee is part caretaker, part witch. Her bulbous nose, snaggle tooth and assortment of moles hint that she's the sort of old lady who pushes fairy-tale children into ovens. Instead, Nanny teaches kids about cooperation and courage, and as her charges come to appreciate the lessons, her appearance undergoes a psychic nip/tuck to become less alarming.
Five years after her Victorian-era debut, Nanny arrives in the early 1940s to assist Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a farm wife whose husband is away at war. Her three kids are several handfuls, and money is tight. Then Isabel's haughty niece and nephew arrive from London, ostensibly to escape German bombs but actually to avoid the detonation of their parents' marriage.
The two sets of cousins instantly loathe each other, which is our heroine's cue to enter, claiming to be an "army nanny." She restores the peace through judicious use of her magic cane, which turns everyday piglets into Olympians and occasionally summons a baby elephant for good measure.
Isabel's biggest problem is not the cousins' antipathy for each other, however. It's her brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans, working some bleached-blond bangs). Phil co-owns the farm, and he needs money to pay gambling debts. Otherwise, he'll be dissected by two female toughs who seem more Threepenny Opera than Mary Poppins.
Phil tries some devious gambits to make Isabel agree to sell, including one that's way too harsh for a PG picture. But Nanny and the kids always defeat him, sometimes with the help of the baby elephant. Plus Nanny's burp-prone pet crow, who's temporarily out of favor but redeems himself in a bomb-defusing scene that makes no sense except as a homage to Lethal Weapon 3.
If the script often seems like a series of private jokes, it's not as self-amused as the performances. Thompson herself can't do much from within the fat suit and prosthetic makeup that defines her character, and Gyllenhaal is too busy with her English accent and one-dimensional role to be sly. But Ifans, Ralph Fiennes and Maggie Smith (as a dotty shopkeeper with an affinity for messes) are in full burlesque mode.
The grownups' perverse and preposterous behavior suggests a moral: Don't trust any adult, except Mummy and Nanny. And what could be more English than that?