*Nanny McPhee Returns (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
There is a regrettable trend among children's movies of late that seems to dictate that bratty kids are adorable, or at least that dealing with them is the means by which reluctant father figures are "domesticated," as if parenting for a man were a form of punishment. If only we could set Nanny McPhee loose on, say, Jackie Chan's The Spy Next Door, just one recent example of this sorry subgenre. She could be the perfect antidote for this upside-down fantasy of parental indulgence and tolerance of "cute" munchkin monsters that threatens to become the norm.
Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is certainly a frazzled mom, and her young children — Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Vincent (Oscar Steer) — are more than a handful. But there's good reason for them all to be on edge. Dad is away fighting a war and hasn't written in three months. (The slightly fantastical 1940ish English-countryside setting suggests World War II.)
Mom is trying to run the family farm while also working in a shop in town and fending off her brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans), who is pressuring her to sell the property. (He owns half and needs the money.) And now, city cousins Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) are coming to visit, and the place is an absolute mess that must be cleaned up before they arrive.
Where the first Nanny McPhee film saw a band of difficult children battling their widower father, here it's the earthy country kids versus the snooty city kids, for whom exile to a farm constitutes a shocking separation from civilization. Then magical Nanny McPhee turns up, an "army nanny," she explains, "deployed" to assist in this frightful domestic battlefield.
Emma Thompson (who also wrote the script) once again introduces Nanny McPhee as a stern and scary presence, not just physically — though her warts and snaggletooth and heft certainly contribute to a sense of stolid implacability — but also as a personality. She is not someone who brooks any disobedience or dismissal. And she's got magic to back up her instructions, magic that can make spiteful or hateful children sorry they have not been nicer.
Some fun cameos (Bill Bailey, Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor) aside, Nanny McPhee Returns is more for the kiddies: It lacks the dark humor that added adult appeal to the original. But it's hardly a chore to sit through as an adult, either. The brighter, lighter silliness of this sequel — cute swimming piglets, a burping bird, cow patties put to yucky use — may be kindergarten comedy, but it doesn't overwhelm the more pertinent points that the story gently sets out about learning to be generous, cooperative and kind.
TV director Susanna White, making her feature debut, works magic herself, transforming these lessons into things that feel almost like accidental, happy side effects of the children's adventures. And again unspoken is the lesson of Nanny McPhee herself: She gradually grows more beautiful the better behaved the children become — her warts disappear, for instance — as if to suggest that manners and kindness are not something to be enforced with unpleasant discipline, but are attitudes worth committing to simply because they make the world a more lovely place.