Superhero movies like Spiderman leave me cold, but not Nanny McPhee. In the first Nanny McPhee film, released five years ago, actress Emma Thompson’s introduces McPhee as the reincarnation of Nurse Matilda, athe main character in a three-part series of novels written by Christiana Brand. McPhee is mysterious and has supernatural powers. Brand‘s books, which began as bedtime stories in her family, were 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, so she had to create an entirely new story for the second film, Nanny McPhee Returns. Thompson changes 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.”
McPhee 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 cinematograph (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 casting a Yank, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal in this case, instead of a Brit as the harried 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 truly a fly in the ointment every time Gyllenhaal appeared on the screen and said her lines. However, she 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. All of the performances are first rate, as 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.