At my screening of Nanny McPhee Returns I sat in front of a group of two women and two young boys, all of whom chose to talk throughout most of the movie. The two women were your basic movie talkers, predicting the most obvious plot points and cracking their gum so loud it was like rifle fire, and one of the boys was a typically restless 8-year-old, but the second kid was far more interesting. Totally engaged in the movie from the first minute, he laughed and gasped in all the right places, put together hints from earlier in the movie about how Nanny McPhee might solve this or that problem, and at one point leaning over to the other kid to explain parts that had gone over his head.
Nanny McPhee Returns is a movie for that kid, a smarter-than-average but still very silly children's film that inspires imagination and laughing out loud and just maybe appreciating your mom all at the same time. Having written the screenplay this time as she reprises her titular character, Emma Thompson actually largely takes a backseat, ceding the action to five rambunctious kids, their overwhelmed mom/aunt (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and all the wild, yucky mayhem life on a farm can conjure. Set in a pastoral England that probably never really existed, with a World War II-esque battle in the backdrop, the movie is a little twee but not too sentimental, and could actually entertain older kids with moments of dark humor and genuine suspense near the end.
Even adults will be entertained thanks to some genuinely great acting, led by Gyllenhaal with a plummy British accent and appropriately manic mannerisms as the mom raising three kids (Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods) and managing a farm while her husband (Ewan McGregor, in a glorified cameo) is off fighting a war. She works at a shop with the forgetful Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith, very funny), faces her smarmy brother-in-law's (Rhys Ifans) constant attempts to buy the farm out from under her, and is now caring for a posh niece and nephew (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson) taking refuge from the bombs dropping in London. Finally she heeds the mystical message that "The person you need is Nanny McPhee," and though Thompson's character is once again ugly and stern (thanks to crazy prosthetics), she makes quick work whipping those kids into shape.
The kids learn proper behavior through a whole series of magic-enhanced lessons, from being forced to share their beds with farm animals to watching some runaway pigs do a synchronized swimming dance, and all the while Nanny McPhee gets less ugly for some reason in a way the kids in the audience seemed to love. The best lesson learned isn't in her official rules, but involves young Cyril (Vlahos) traveling all the way to London to stand up to his army commander father (Ralph Fiennes, honest-to-God terrific). Director Susanna White knows to tone down the frantic cutting and overzealous score to just let the moment play, and young Vlahos is somehow up to the challenge, establishing years of disappointment and resentment between father and son with a few sharp words and glares. It's a pretty remarkable scene, and proof that the freewheeling energy and endearing goofiness that came before it are the result of filmmakers who take seriously their job of cutting loose like kids.
Nanny McPhee Returns isn't perfect on any level-- a subplot about bounty hunters on Uncle Phil's tail goes nowhere, and the humor reverts back to poop jokes and uninspired pratfalls way too often. But with its poppy production design and generous spirit the movie is far better than you might be imagining, especially this late in the summer. If you know a smarter-than-average kid like the one who sat behind me, take him now that he's seen Toy Story 3 10 times-- it's not quite the same, but it'll do for now.