REVIEW: Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang [Nanny McPhee Returns] [2010]

“Yes poo man, we’ve come from far, far away in the land of soap”

I must say I’m disappointed in Emma Thompson. I could understand her desire to write and star in an adaptation of Nurse Matilda—perhaps a childhood favorite of hers or her children—but her new incarnation of the wart-faced, bucktoothed taskmaster, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, seems a complete cash grab. I looked past the juvenile humor of the first film, realizing the work was aimed at children, but the amount of poo jokes here is astonishing, especially when half the film includes some pretty heavy subject matter. British humor is something I enjoy immensely, though, so maybe it’s the crassness that would be derided as poor writing here in the states leaving me cold. Hollywood even changed the name to Nanny McPhee Returns, either afraid we’d forget a previous installment existed or because we can’t relate to the phenomenon of unexploded bombs in our backyard like England circa WWII. The series may in fact be more British than I could have thought, alienating me from fully enjoying the whole.

On the flip side of my preferences, if there is one thing the majority of Americans like, it’s poo and fart jokes. With plenty of both, the audience ate it up. I could be uptight, but this film just isn’t something I would want to bring my kids to see. It’s a shame too, because Thompson is a gifted writer and when she moves into the second half of the plot, her handle on emotion is superb. The story takes place on a farm ready to fold. Mr. Green is off fighting the war, out of communication for three months; Isabel Green is doing her best to make ends meet, hoping the harvest will get them through until her husband returns; and the children do anything they can to help. Introducing two spoiled, rich—due to the military—cousins is a necessity once the war-heavy final act arrives, but before that, the culture clash is only good for a few laughs and the need for Nanny McPhee. In all honesty, the magical woman has little to do on this adventure, mostly cocking her head smugly as the children rectify their own problems. Granted, they are older here than the previous film, but you’d think McPhee would do more than animate animals and drive the boys to London on her motorcycle.

As a result, however, we do become involved with the children, leaving McPhee on the fringes and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s mother to continue pretending she’s English—why couldn’t they have cast a Brit in the role? Young Oscar Steer as Vincent is a great source of comic relief, adorable in his expressions and innocent compassion to all creatures, including a baby elephant; Lil Woods plays the tomboy big sister Megsie with aplomb, retaining her age and need to be a girl, but also portraying the fortitude needed to work a farm; and Rosie Taylor-Ritson’s brat of a cousin Celia is the epitome of what money can do to an impressionable child, status and appearance meaning far more than foreign concepts such as generosity and family. The real stars, though, are the boys at the forefront—first enemies and soon partners in trust and duty. Asa Butterfield has the same brilliant mix of boyish naïveté and sense of responsibility that made his work in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas so memorable. He is the man of the house while his father is away and he takes the title to heart, so when an obnoxious, good-for-nothing brute comes to usurp his authority, you can’t blame the boy for his actions. The fact Eros Vlahos steals every scene as cousin Cyril only helps. This kid has the best timing and sarcastic delivery of any child actor I’ve seen in quite some time.

Once these children begin to live together, the differences they have soon melt away as real problems like death, abandonment, divorce, and destitution rear their head. While Thompson’s McPhee had to teach etiquette the first time around, she only needs to show patience here, waiting for the children to make nice themselves. Because this means less screentime for her ‘miracles’, it means an increase for those eccentrics on the outskirts looking in, showing once more how important a paycheck is to the British. Rhys Ifans does his usual physical comedy as the brother-in-law looking to sell the farm to pay back Sinead Matthews and a formidable Katy Brand (as Misses Topsy and Turvey respectively) before they remove his kidneys; Maggie Smith is fantastic as the senile old co-worker/friend of Mrs. Green with a secret of her own; and Bill Bailey uses his elastic face to great effect as Farmer Macreadie, a man who is keenly aware of just how clever pigs can be. Look for Ewan McGregor and Ralph Fiennes later on as the story turns from lessons in manners to pure and simple survival—a tonal shift into unexpected seriousness.

Nanny McPhee Returns is not without its moments of levity too; our heroine does have her magic cane along for the ride, after all. Call me a stick in the mud if you want, but synchronized swimming pigs and barley fireworks are a bit too silly to be endearing enough for a laugh, although the entire theater around me thought differently. Every single animated farm creature brought forth a rapturous response, so I guess it was my loss in that regard. I did highly enjoy young Vlahos and the elder Smith for their contributions, as well as many other parts from the rest of the cast. For some reason, though, the whole wasn’t a successful combination of those parts, oftentimes becoming repetitious and way too fantastical. Nanny McPhee worked because it’s magic was just good enough to keep the kids on their toes without breaking all semblance of reality. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for its sequel. What I can do, however, is give some well earned points for a lovely homage to Pink Floyd’s Animals. Pay particular attention to the zeppelins flying above the Chelsea architecture … one might not be an aircraft.

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang [Nanny McPhee Returns] 4/10 | ★ ½

photography:
[1] In “Nanny McPhee Returns”, Oscar®-winning actress and screenwriter EMMA THOMPSON returns to the role of the magical nanny who appears when she’s needed the most and wanted the least in the next chapter of the hilarious and heartwarming fable that has enchanted children around the world. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2010 Universal Pictures. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] (L to R) Megsie (LIL WOODS), Norman (ASA BUTTERFIELD), Vincent (OSCAR STEER), Cyril (EROS VLAHOS) and Celia (ROSIE TAYLOR-RITSON) fight it out in the next chapter of the hilarious and heartwarming fable that has enchanted children around the world–“Nanny McPhee Returns”. Photo Credit: Liam Daniel Copyright: © 2010 Universal Pictures. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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