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MOVIE REVIEW

Nanny McPhee Returns

‘Nanny’ adds sweetness in place of subversion

Star Emma Thompson wrote “Nanny McPhee Returns.’’ Star Emma Thompson wrote “Nanny McPhee Returns.’’ (Liam Daniel)
By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / August 20, 2010

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Part of what made the first “Nanny McPhee’’ so infectiously amusing was that it really was the anti-“Mary Poppins,’’ peppered with odd, subversive moments and full of relentlessly dour looks from Emma Thompson’s magical, mono-browed, mole-dotted caregiver. She might as well have shown up saying, “I’m having a bad face day, children, so spare me the spoonful-of-sugar nonsense — you’ll take your medicine and like it.’’

In the disappointing sequel from Thompson and director Susanna White (the BBC’s “Bleak House’’), we get a gentler, more wink-inclined Nanny McPhee, not to mention kids whose rambunctiousness seems manufactured rather than entertainingly exaggerated. This time, the parent at the end of her tether is Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, complete with British accent), who’s struggling to keep the family farm afloat while her husband (briefly glimpsed Ewan McGregor) is off fighting in WWII. Isabel’s three children (Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, and Oscar Steer) gamely pitch in with the mucking and pig-tending, and for the most part are actually pretty civilized. In the first movie, we had widower Colin Firth playing beleaguered, as usual, like second nature; here, Isabel isn’t so much a candidate for “Nanny 911’’ as for an HGTV rescue.

It’s a curious, premise-thwarting hole for Thompson to dig for herself as the movie’s writer. But it’s a hole she clambers out of by introducing the kids’ snooty, citified cousins, Cyril and Celia (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson), to get the fighting started. With his “Little Rascals’’ Waldo suits and general air of junior foppishness, Vlahos is the movie’s one scene stealer, delivering his share of Thompson’s copious, kid-catering poo references with perfect disdain. “We’ve come from far away,’’ Cyril tells his cousins, “from the land of soap and indoor toilets.’’

The brood is soon being uniquely schooled in all the familiar lessons about getting along, sharing, and cooperation — in the last case to wrangle a bunch of runaway piglets that have been magically transformed into oinking acrobatic wonders. (The pigs’ Busby Berkeley aquatic number in the farm’s pond easily outshines flat gags like a chronically belching pet crow.) Nanny McPhee also helps the kids help themselves, both in keeping the farm from the clutches of a scheming relative (a squandered Rhys Ifans) and in trying to prove that McGregor’s character is still alive despite a fateful army telegram.

The movie needn’t be so busy, or so sweet. When Nanny McPhee’s charges need to get to the War Office, quick, she plops them into her quaint sidecar motorcycle and races off to London. The initial close-up of Thompson — all sourly snaggletoothed and begoggled — is as funny as anything in the original. And just that one quick glimpse would have been perfect. But then plot demands and a general push for saccharinity have her taking to the air on the bike, and being saluted by the Queen’s Guard, and cheerily rocketing down a country byway. So much for skipping the spoonful of sugar.

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.

NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS

Directed by: Susanna White

Written by: Emma Thompson, based on the “Nurse Matilda’’ books by Christianna Brand

Starring: Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, and Ralph Fiennes

At: Boston Common,

Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: PG (rude humor,

some language and

mild thematic elements)

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