I don't care how good a kids' film is (and this one isn't that good), Maggie Smith deserves better. Having her doddering old Mrs. Docherty mistake a pile of cow shit for a comfy and plop down onto it with a splurt seems like a cruel way to make a terrific actress collect a paycheck.
If there's one thing this sequel to the 2005 charmer brings, it's lots of poop. And burps. And quarreling kids. It's also silly, fitfully charming, and big-hearted as hell. Writer-producer-star Emma Thompson brings back her snaggletoothed, bulbous-nosed, hairy-moled Nanny McPhee to once again tame unruly children, teach life-lessons and wield her quirky-by-half magic.
Set in the bucolic British countryside, some 70 or so years after the first film, the anti-Poppins governess drops in just as young mum Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is about to come undone. See, her husband is off fighting in World War II while she's left to raise three precocious tots, bring in the harvest, take care of her snooty niece and nephew, and fend off her conniving brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans), who needs the deed to the family farm to pay off a gambling debt to a pair of psychopathic women out for his kidneys. Good thing the crockery in Mrs. Docherty's shop begins chanting: "The person who you need is Nanny McPhee!"
Before you can say "second-rate Roald Dahl," our titular heroine has brought along a belching jackdaw named Mr. Edelweiss, a flying motorcycle, a helpful baby elephant, and synchronized swimming piglets that would feel at home in an Esther Williams flick. Out of all this wackiness, the kids learn compassion, how to work together and, of course, how to stand up for what's right.
Choreographed by director Susanna White (Generation Kill), Nanny McPhee Returns is clunky in its plot and pace, but always engaging. To be honest, there isn't much to entertain the parental units (though there is an oddball Pink Floyd reference), and it could use a little tightening and pruning, but the movie has a chipperness that's infectious. Some jokes are clever, and the actors, both young and old, are adorably talented (watch for Ewan McGregor and Ralph Fiennes cameos). It may not sidle up to Mary Poppins, Babe and Witches on the classic family film shelf, but it is clearly a labor of love for the talented Thompson, and the wee ones are always up for a flurry of poop jokes.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.