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Nanny McPhee Returns -- Film Review

"Nanny McPhee Returns"

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Five years after her movie debut -- not so long a passage to have been forgotten and enough time to be fondly remembered -- "Nanny McPhee Returns."

This marks a welcome reappearance for children and a fanciful wish fulfillment for harried parents who can only yearn for such a child minder. Universal is therefore in a position to enjoy the happy (boxoffice) returns.

Nanny McPhee, a thoroughly English character pretty much created and enacted by the multitalented Emma Thompson, can be summed up as Mary Poppins without the Sherman Brothers' delightful songs. But this doesn't quite catch what is unique here. Thompson's nanny with magical powers that make children behave contains certain elements that would be quite at home in a horror film.

Her initial appearance in this film, for instance, is presaged by storm warnings and ominous signs, and her entrance is enough to send children scampering under beds. Moles and facial hairs dominate her countenance, and considerable body padding gives the actress substantial girth. Clearly no spoonful of sugar

is going to help any of Nanny McPhee's medicine go down.

Like Mary Poppins, this character, recruited and renamed from three "Nurse Matilda" books by Christianna Brand, dwells in a bygone England that looked sort of Victorian in the previous film but in this one takes place during a war that only can logically be World War I.

The movie's farm-family dad (Ewan McGregor in a cameo) is away fighting in the war. This leaves his beleaguered wife, Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, with a serviceable English accent and a welcome touch of glamour), saddled with a debt-ridden farm and three quarreling children -- a burden greatly increased when two snobbish city cousins arrive for an extended visit. Meanwhile, her nefarious brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans, savagely overacting), is bugging her to sell the farm so he can satisfy his gambling debts.

Enter Nanny McPhee -- "small c, big P," she reminds everyone -- whose origins are vague, to say the least. She claims she is deployed by the British Army. Indeed, during a sequence in a nicely period London circa 1915, everyone from military guards to the statues in Trafalgar Square seems to know her. One wonders why her superhero skills aren't deployed in the war effort rather than in calming domestic turmoil, but then only an adult would question such a thing.

It takes but a thump of her crooked cane on the floor to tame five squabbling children through magical "lessons." At first, this amounts to using her magic against the children, but soon they are all so delighted by such things as a baby elephant who sleeps in their beds and squealing piglets capable of synchronized swimming that the youngsters begin to share and cooperate without the need for magical nudges.

Thompson admits she looted all three Brand novels for her first "Nanny" screenplay, so in this one she must start from scratch with only a character and a situation of dire domestic turmoil. The major disappointment here is that the final act relies far too heavily on CGI magic rather than story, character or wit. But getting to the final act provides most of the fun.

The young actors are adept in their roles, especially Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as visiting cousins. Their thorough distaste for the aggressively rural environment is palpable, and their gradual acclimation to these surroundings is always amusing.

Vlahos and Asa Butterfield, as Isabel's eldest boy, have the movie's most effective scene, in which they confront Ralph Fiennes, playing Vlahos' stiff military dad, during the boys' quick trip to London to learn the fate of Butterfield's father.

Thompson develops some of the smaller roles quite well, especially Sinead Matthews and Kathy Brand as a pair of "hit women" out to collect on Phil's tardy IOUs and Bill Bailey as an affable neighboring farmer.

Other roles call for too much mugging. This would include Maggie Smith's turn as a forgetful old shopkeeper and Sam Kelly as an aging air-raid warden. The film suffers slightly from a curious sort of ageism, where the older you get the more "comic" you become.

In the title role, Thompson wisely lets her makeup artist do much of the initial work -- the moles and hair do start to disappear as the children learn her lessons, leaving her more or less recognizable by movie's end. Meanwhile, she uses her commanding voice to bring the movie's energy to her character while standing aside to give the child protagonists plenty of room to romp.

Period films often get coy about their looks, through overemphasizing historic details or restricting color palettes. Under Susanna White's direction, cinematographer Mike Eley shoots 1915 as if it were 2010 with bright colors and straightforward framing.

Simon Elliott's production design and Jacqueline Durran's costumes set the table for much of the comedy -- fine linens getting soiled in a farm's "land of poo" -- while never calling undue attention to themselves. James Newton Howard's music picks up its comic cues perhaps a bit too swiftly and loudly, but little of this detracts from the movie's many pleasures.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 20 (Universal)
Production: Working Title/StudioCanal/Relativity Media
Cast: Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Asa Butterfield, Lil Wood, Oscar Steer, Rosie Taylor-Bitson, Eros Vlahos
Director: Susanna White
Screenwriter: Emma Thompson
Based on a character by: Christianna Brand
Producers: Lindsay Doran, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: Debra Osborne, Liza Chasin, Emma Thompson
Director of photography: Mike Eley
Production designer: Simon Elliott
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Editor: Sim Evan-Jones
Rated PG, 108 minutes