Nanny McPhee Returns presents a frazzled mom with overactive kids. But there’s good reason for Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to be on edge while her children Norman, Megsie and Vincent (Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods and Oscar Steer) are running wild: Dad is away fighting a war. (The whimsical 1940ish English countryside setting suggests World War II, but this could just as easily be today.) Isabel is fending off her brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans), who is pressuring her to sell the family farm. And now, city cousins Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) are coming for a visit. The place is an absolute mess.
Where the first Nanny McPhee film saw a band of monstrous children battling their widower father, here it’s the earthy country kids versus the snooty city kids ... until magical Nanny McPhee turns up. Emma Thompson (who also wrote the script) is once again a stern and scary presence — not just physically, though her warts and snaggletooth make her seem implacable. Thompson’s Nanny, moreover, is not someone who brooks any disobedience. And she’s got magic to back up her instructions — magic that will make spiteful or hateful little children sorry they haven’t behaved better.
Some fun cameos — Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor — aside, Nanny McPhee Returns is more for the kiddies: It lacks the dark humor with adult appeal of the first Nanny McPhee. But adults won’t find it a chore to sit through this Nanny sequel, either.
The brighter, lighter silliness — cute swimming piglets, a burping bird, cow patties put to yucky use — may be kindergarten comedy, but it doesn’t overwhelm the lessons about learning to be generous, cooperative and kind set out by the story. TV director Susanna White, making her feature debut, works some magic herself by transforming the lessons into something that feels almost accidental, like happy side effects of the madcap adventures the children get caught up in. And again unspoken is the lesson of Nanny McPhee herself: she gradually becomes more beautiful the better behaved the children become. (Her warts disappear, for instance.) Good manners are not something to be enforced with discipline. Instead, Nanny McPhee Returns suggests, kindness and generosity are attitudes worth committing to simply because they make the world a nicer place to live in.