As before, a secondary color family somewhere in England needs help. This time it’s the Greens, whose paterfamilias has gone off to fight in World War II and left his wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and children to tend after the family farm.
It takes a lot of guts try and turn the Blitz into the background for a charming children’s fable, but Thompson and director Susanna White do a decent enough job of it, moving the Greens far enough away from London to be able to avoid the reality of the war while still being able to use it for dramatic effect. In this case, that means shipping off a couple of family cousins Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) for some City Mouse-Country Mouse style conflict.
The in-over-your-head nature of the family dilemmas, which require Nanny McPhee, was the best of the first film and is the best part of the sequel as well. Single mother Isabel, already at her wits’ end with three children who barely behave and miss their father, is pushed over the line with the early arrival of two more children who don’t want to be in the country in the first place. Throw in a brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) desperate for her to sell the family farm so that he can collect his share of the sale and you’d be calling for a magical nanny, too.
Unfortunately, that’s where “Nanny McPhee Returns” starts its slow but steady downhill journey.
Based on original story by Thompson this time out, the new version seems confused what exactly to do once it’s got its conflict set up. Initially reprising the magical lesson-teaching of the first film, the sequel gratifyingly moves to new ground rather than simply imitating the first to a tee. It would probably work better than it does if except that the new ground turns out to mean this Mary Poppins pastiche morphs into a Wizard of Oz pastiche, with the Emerald City becoming London and the Wizard himself turning into cousin Ceril’s estranged father (Ralph Fiennes).
There’s still a good moral about the rewards of good behavior tucked into a film filled with whimsy that will make children laugh and clap. Thompson has McPhee down to a tee and for the most part makes up for the overt silliness several of the other adult actors (notably Ifans) feel compelled to do. On the other hand, the closer it draws to a close, it becomes difficult to draw all of the pieces together and Thompson’s final solution pushes whimsy to the edge of silliness and a little beyond.
For any problems it has, “Nanny McPhee Returns” is enjoyable for a lot longer than it’s not, filled with class and charm that a lot of other children’s films reject as unpalatable. And when you’re talking about a film that spends a lot of time talking about animal droppings, that’s saying something.