The good news first: Nanny McPhee Returns, the follow-up to the moderately successful 2005 family comedy Nanny McPhee, does not replicate the original’s retina-searing color scheme, which was like watching The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg on grandma’s busted TV set. The bad news: Every other aspect of the movie is dialed up to the same blaring tint, from the aggressive whimsy of the CGI effects and James Newton Howard’s score to comedy built on a bedrock of poo jokes, hairy moles, and gooey substances that stick to characters’ shoes. As with the original, the presence of Emma Thompson (who also scripted) in the title role lends the film an air of sophistication and wit that its actual contents don’t support, and she’s aided and abetted this time out by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maggie Smith, Rhys Ifans, and a pair of heavyweight cameos. On balance, more dignity is lost than gained.
Sporting a plausible—or at least consistent—British accent, Gyllenhaal stars as the harried mother of three children in rural England, barely making do while her husband is off fighting in World War II. Between her rowdy kids and a brother-in-law (Ifans) scheming to sell the farm out from under her, Gyllenhaal is barely holding onto her sanity even before her snooty big-city niece and nephew come to stay with them until the bombing runs stop. Naturally, the arrogant big-city children don’t mix with Gyllenhaal’s country kids, prompting Thompson’s grotesque witch-nanny to swoop down from the heavens and impose order through magical “lessons.”
With each lesson imparted, Nanny McPhee loses one of her hideous features—a hairy mole here, a unibrow there—and watching Emma Thompson gradually look more like herself again is the next best thing to checking your watch. McPhee’s methods are either cruel and slapstick-y, like forcing the kids to hurt themselves until they apologize for hurting each other, or reliant on splashy displays of magic, like runaway piglets who climb trees and put on a synchronized-swimming exhibition. Between disciplinary measures, Nanny McPhee Returns squeezes in a wholly unearned dramatic subplot about sacrifices made on the front. The last thing a movie featuring a belching black crow needs is gravitas.