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Nanny Mcphee’s return is welcome

POSTED: August 20, 2010 10:37 a.m.
/Universal Pictures

"Nanny McPhee Returns" is the rare family film that tries to please kids more than their parents. It may not be the most ambitious movie of the year, but it's one of the loveliest.

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Despite what Summer would have us think, not all movies need to be long, loud or monumental. Sometimes a nice little movie is exactly what's needed.

And "Nanny McPhee Returns" is a nice little movie.

Like the first film, this sequel riffs on what is now a rather old idea. A mysterious nanny enters the lives of a family in disarray and tidies everything up.

In this case, the head of the family is Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is struggling to support her children while her husband (Ewan McGregor) is away fighting for Britain in World War II. Straits are so dire that they may lose the farm, which has been in the family for generations. It doesn't help that her brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans) constantly tries to manipulate Isabel into selling the place so he can pay off his gambling debts.

The Green children, Vincent (Oscar Steer), Norman (Asa Butterfield), and Megsie (Lil Woods), behave as well as might be expected given the fact that they miss their father and are left unattended too often while Isabel works for the wonderfully eccentric Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith).

However, chaos takes over the household when their cousins Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia Gray (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) come to stay with the Greens. Cyril and Celia are kind-hearted but spoiled children who have clearly been neglected by parents who care more about their careers and social standing.

The Gray kids insult their country cousins, who literally fight back, and at a certain point it seems the entire world is falling apart for the Greens and the Grays.

Cue Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), who must use her magical walking stick to restore discipline and harmony among the children while healing all sorts of emotional wounds for kids and parents alike.

Thompson clearly has a soft spot for this character and for kids in general. She wrote both the Nanny McPhee movies, and even though they are much lower profile compared to her other films, she has promoted them heavily throughout the U.K. and U.S., including making an appearance in Atlanta.

That deep affection permeates the whole movie. There's lots of love to go around, which proves to be the sugar that helps the medicine go down. Because "Nanny McPhee Returns" makes no secret that it's trying to teach young viewers something - five things, to be exact.

Younger children won't mind this because there are plenty of laughs between the lessons, and parents certainly shouldn't mind a film that unabashedly espouses some basic principles of kindness and generosity.

But it's a fair question to ask whether this movie is necessary. On the one hand, no it isn't. "Mary Poppins" covered much of this territory, and these movies, just like all those nanny television shows, are basically recycling the same characters and ideas.

On the other hand, these are timeless ideas, and I imagine movies will still be drawing on them decades from now. I wonder how many wives and children of U.S. soldiers will watch this and understand exactly how those characters feel.

There is also much to be said for genuinely innocent family movies. "Nanny McPhee Returns" is set against the grave backdrop of war, but we don't see any combat violence. The children know their father is in danger, and that is enough to lend the film gravity. Two "lady heavies" also appear occasionally trying to collect Phil's debts, but they are as silly as they are menacing.

"Nanny McPhee Returns" is the rare family film that tries to please kids more than their parents. It may not be the most ambitious movie of the year, but it's one of the loveliest.

Warts and all.

  Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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