Emma Thompson, my sincerest sympathies. While you may have brought us the first disposable and decently harmless original Nanny McPhee, it appears that in order to one-up the first film you’ve gone and done a little dumpster diving. Thank you for giving us a movie that could quite literally be called Nanny McPoop. As she always informs characters, “Small c, big P.” I’m surprised there weren’t any urination jokes, but I digress.
In no less than five minutes, Nanny McPhee Returns allows the audience the wonderment that is a fresh cow pie plopping onto the ground, followed, of course, by another shot of said scat being flung from a barn door. Then it graces us no less than one minute later, mind you, with a black crow belching in the face of poor Nanny McPhee (Thompson herself). Nanny McPhee calls this crow her friend, but if this is the company she seeks… well, we all know how much misery loves company.
Yes, things run so afoul so quickly. The script can’t be completely to blame. While lots of directors cut their teeth in television, sometimes when that’s all they’ve done, it’s all they can do. Somehow first-time feature director Susanna White has attracted the likes of not just Thompson, but also Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes, the great Maggie Smith, and Ewan McGregor. Wait… Ewan McGregor? What’s he doing here? Oh yeah, he’s off in a war leaving Gyllenhaal’s character to fend for the family farm to show up in a hilarious flashback and walk on set at the end to make for happily ever after.
For a children’s film, this thing is the definition of convoluted. While it may be easy to break down into a few sentences, let’s see what’s in store for you with Nanny McPhee Returns. This was, by the way, originally titled Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. If only the rest of the movie had been shortened, or simply focused on the synchronized swimming piglets.
Isabel Green (Gyllenhaal) has three rotten kids: Vincent (Oscar Steer), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Norman (Asa Butterfield). Isabel’s brother-in-law, Phil Green (Ifans), who owns half of the family farm, is convinced her husband is not returning from war and will go to his wit’s ends to try to convince her to sell the farm. Phil really wants Isabel to sell the farm after he’s been harassed by Miss Topsey (Sinead Matthews) and Miss Turvey (Katy Brand) because Phil owes their boss some money.
Meanwhile, “the cousins,” Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia Gray (Rosie Taylor-Ritson, who looks like she could play a part in a live action version of An American Tail sans makeup), are on their way but arrive a day early. If you thought Isabel’s children were awful, just wait till you meet these two. No one gets along and this, of course, brings us to Nanny McPhee, who shows up to teach the kids five life lessons because she comes when she’s needed but not wanted and must leave once she’s wanted but not needed.
Anyhow, Vincent has a plan to sell his five prize piglets to Farmer Macreadie (Bill Bailey) to pay for the tractor to make the harvest and save the farm. Phil has other plans and will even go so far as to fake Mr. Green’s death in the war to convince Isabel to sell the farm, but Vincent feels it in his bones (which seems to be his only line of dialogue for the last half hour) that his father is still alive and needs Cyril and McPhee’s flying buggy to visit Lord Gray at the War Office in London to find out if his father is really dead and save the day.
If you’re wondering what Maggie Smith is doing in this production, well, it’s to knowingly sit on a cow patty because it just looks so comfortable. Ralph Fiennes seems to be in the film to wear a look of disgust when a child hugs him, but it’s probably because he just watched the dailies for the rest of the film. And Ewan McGregor? Why, he’s the new British Christopher Walken apparently. It seems as if someone called him and said, “Hey, we’re shooting a movie out in the country. Want to get paid to make out with Batman’s dead girlfriend and watch Maggie Smith disgrace herself?”
If you’re looking for a movie that basks in the glory of having a set dressed with “poo as far as the eye can see” (as Cyril points out upon arrival) then look no further. As much as the awful direction and hammering of messages goes, it all really goes back to the script. While Thompson and Gyllenhaal may have made friends while filming Stranger Than Fiction and Smith and Fiennes must be an acquaintance thanks to that one boy wizard series, there’s no reason for anyone to have become involved with this dreck, most of all McGregor, who is in it for less reason than anyone else as he was blessed with maybe one line of dialogue. I suppose seeing how he shows up after all is said and done, he’s the one who’s getting off easy.
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures