Rarely do sequels equal or exceed expectations but this comedy does, offering broad slapstick that’s guaranteed to elicit laughter from small children and their parents. Emma Thompson reprises the magical character she created in 2005’s “Nanny McPhee,” based on Christianna Brand’s “Nurse Matilda” books, not only starring but also writing the screenplay, as she did with the original.
Set during World War II, the family that the warty, uni-browed, snaggletoothed Mary Poppins-like Nanny visits this time is headed by a stressed-out mother who lives in the English countryside. While her soldier husband (Ewan McGregor) is off fighting, Mrs. Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her three children – Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Vincent (Oscar Steer) – are struggling to survive. Their lives are further complicated by the arrival of two spoiled, precocious cousins – Cyril and Celia (Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson) – who have been dispatched from London in a purple Rolls Royce to escape the bombing – and a scheming subplot attempt by their devious, despicable Uncle Phil (Rhys Ifans) to sell off their farm to pay off his gambling debts.
Nanny McPhee’s mission is to teach the tiny shrieking terrors five vital lessons that will leave the family “wanting” but not “needing” her services. And, curiously, as each virtuous message is learned, Nanny McPhee’s foreboding appearance becomes less ugly and scary. When it was released abroad earlier this year as “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang,” the reference was to the bombs dropped by “enemy” planes on England during the Blitz.
Best known for her work on the Iraq-themed TV series “Generation Kill,” director Susannah White elicits fine performances from her entire cast, including sturdy supporting turns from Ralph Fiennes, Bill Bailey and Maggie Smith. The best scenes involve animals: flying piglets proficient at synchronized swimming, climbing trees and Scrabble, along with a pen-stealing baby elephant, flatulent black bird, barnyard mud and poo.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Nanny McPhee Returns” is an irreverent yet sweetly sentimental 7, a delightful late summer diversion.