This Week’s Popcorn

‘Nanny McPhee Returns’ to a lukewarm reception

2 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer

Director Susanna White’s “Nanny McPhee Returns,” adapted by and starring Emma Thompson in the title role, contradicts my personal rule of thumb: “Movies that start slowly, end slowly.” Stay awake through 20 minutes of tedious exposition and this kiddy flick based on Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books proves a bit of a treat.

The 20 minutes might best be spent adjusting to the English accents, including Yank Maggie Gyllenhaal’s put-on inflection as Isabel Green, the frazzled mom of three trying to keep homestead and hearth together whilst hubby is away at World War II. A good cast of characters, exacted in the Dickensian sense of the term, ultimately claims our interest.

The plot, a basic primer in morality, is an amalgam of several fables. The mortgage on the farm is due and all sorts of Catch 22s and evil-intending blaggards work to make sure Mom and the kids won’t be able to harvest the barley and pay the bank. Principal among the unprincipled is Rhys Ifans’ humorously turned performance as scurrilous Uncle Phil.

Old Phil likes to gamble, and judging from the two hit women harpies forever reminding what body parts they’ll confiscate if he doesn’t settle an old debt, he isn’t very good at it. He’s an even worse in-law and uncle, stooping so low as to foster several prevarications intended to coerce a sale of the family farm in order to save his own, worthless skin.

But have no fear. The physics of fairy tales dictates an opposite and more than equal reaction to battle life’s uncle Phils. Arriving in classical deus ex machina fashion is Nanny McPhee, her near-offending, gruesome appearance affirming Emma Thompson’s panache and self confidence in portraying her. She informs that the Army has sent her.

Expect the usual, silly, getting-to-know you acrobatics as the magical nanny first bedazzlingly proves her dominance to the misbehaving urchins. This includes Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and little Vincent (Oscar Steer), as well as their rich, snotty cousins, Cyril and Celia, sent from London for the safety of the countryside.

Of course, Nanny McPhee, who automatically reminds on introduction that it’s small c, large P, is everything a child really wishes in a parent. For one, she has a magic wand, albeit in the form of a crooked cane, which need only be stomped against the floor to allay practically any danger. More importantly, she exudes fair and competent authority.

Make no mistake, however, that she appears simply to save the day. The, uh, Army, or whatever power it is that has actually dispatched Nanny McPhee to the scene of struggle, has apparently employed the homely enchantress to impart some moral lessons … five to be exact. The story is thus delineated into movements keyed to each ethical instruction.

Naturally, the going is kooky enough to create the sort of untidy conflict children enjoy. Which means that whole bunches of things go wrong. Regularly scheduled belly flops into the Green farm’s ubiquitous mud provide the requisite slapstick. And offering our moppets something they can relate to, the wealthy cousins are typically obnoxious.

Using the grownup side of my brain to ascertain what consolations await adults accompanying Taylor and Cooper to see “Nanny McPhee Returns” suggests that the most entertaining aspect is the process itself. Though director White and writer Thompson create no classic, they synergistically provide a nice little entrée to drama.

Aside from the confusingly lackluster scenes I and II, there is an estimable walking of the tightrope, wherein the screenplay astutely veers between condescendingly cute and pretentiously witty. And in the bargain, once Junior’s ears attune to the jargon, the patina of dry British drollery might initiate an appreciation for the headier realms of comedy.

Still, for tykes not quite ready to give up their sense of humor’s security blanket, there is the occasional poop-related joke. When Maggie Smith as dotty old Mrs. Docherty insists that one of the cow’s magnum opuses is an inviting tuffet, it assures guffaws from even the most urbane tots. But at the end of the day, ‘tis the characterizations that hold sway.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is suitable as the pretty, ever-suffering everymom; Rhys Ifans’s Uncle Phil is a whimsical icon of determined disingenuousness; all the kids are sized just about right and hit their marks well enough; and a gaggle of eccentrics, including Sam Kelly as the comically officious CD warden, nicely complements the bucolic landscape.

That said, unless it’s a rainy day and all other diversions are a washout, this shouldn’t be your children’s film of first choice, especially if you still haven’t seen “Toy Story III” (2010). The smart money will find that “Nanny McPhee Returns” a better yield on entertainment investment when rented and shown in the comfort of the family den.

“Nanny McPhee Returns,” rated PG, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Susanna White and stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans and Asa Butterfield. Running time: 109 minutes.