Universal // 2010 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 8th, 2010
You'll believe that pigs can fly!
"We are in the land of poo. Duck poo, cow poo, goat poo."
Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Dark Knight) is faced with the unenviable task of taking care of three children while her husband (Ewan McGregor, Big Fish) is fighting with the British Army during World War II. Unfortunately, young Vincent (Oscar Steer), Norman (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), and Megsie (Lil Woods, Blessed) are all misbehaving terribly in their father's absence. The arrival of snotty cousins Cyril (Eros Vlahos, Skellig: The Owl Man) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) only compounds the problem; making Isabel's life a living hell.
At just the right moment, Nanny Mcphee (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility) arrives. Her talents as a nanny are as remarkable as her physical appearance is horrific -- and boy, is it horrific. Over the course of the next few days, the snaggle-toothed nanny teaches the horrible children a few lessons in good behavior.
Man, what happened here? 2005's Nanny McPhee was hardly a cinematic masterpiece, but it was a reasonably satisfying piece of children's entertainment boasting a clever screenplay from Emma Thompson, a stellar central performance from the same, and a splendid supporting turn from Colin Firth. Unfortunately, the sequel goes through all the same motions to much less satisfying effect, replacing the gentle charm of the original with an irritating predictability.
It's rather fitting that the film opens with an image of a cow taking a giant dump. There's more poop-themed humor in this film than any in recent memory; only Steve McQueen's prison drama Hunger offers a comparable amount of excrement (I'm not talking about the metaphorical kind, either). "It's the British Museum of Poo," one character declares upon looking at the farm. He's not kidding. At one point, the esteemed Maggie Smith is called upon to sit in a cow patty. She does this by choice. "It just looks so comfortable," she says. "Ooooh, squishy." If that sounds like your cup of tea, you've got plenty more to look forward to. For good measure, the film throws in a burping, farting bird who turns up every few minutes or so.
The characters just aren't as interesting this time around, either. While the kids in the first film behaved badly at times, they were lovable in their way. The kids in this movie are just obnoxious; their second-half reformation does little to make us care about them. They're certainly capable young actors (Asa Butterfield was remarkable in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), but they aren't given particularly rewarding roles in this film. While Colin Firth was perfectly cast as the bedraggled British father in Nanny McPhee, Maggie Gyllenhaal seems very ill-suited to the role of the bedraggled British mother in Nanny McPhee Returns. Her accent isn't particularly convincing and her frenzy seems forced. Gyllenhaal is a fine actress, but this part is simply beyond her abilities. Brief turns from Ewan McGregor and Ralph Fiennes (The Reader) do little to enliven the proceedings.
Just like the first time around, Nanny McPhee's ugly physical features disappear one-by-one as the kids begin to learn their lessons. Unfortunately, this progression feels disappointingly routine in this installment. There isn't a single unpredictable moment over the course of the film, as the movie gratingly telegraphs every single beat well in advance. A subplot involving the villainous local figure Phil Green (Rhys Ifans, Pirate Radio) is so awkwardly-inserted that it barely registers. Thompson is perfectly satisfactory as Nanny McPhee, but we can't help but feel we've seen this performance before -- her character arc is identical to the one she took in the first film, but with less emotional impact.
The hi-def transfer is decent enough, though a bit less than dazzling. There is one area in which Nanny McPhee Returns improves on its predecessor: while the first film offered a headache-inducing palette comprised of ultra-bright colors, this installment takes a decidedly calmer approach to its visuals. The image seems just a bit soft at times, rendering detail less pristine than I had hoped for, but it's not too bad. There's a natural level of grain present throughout; giving the flick a pleasantly filmic quality. The audio is sturdy all around, though the score by James Newton Howard seems too on-the-nose (and why has he included a theme that sounds like a thinly-veiled variation on "Yankee Doodle Dandee" -- is it a reference to Gyllenhaal's thinly-veiled American accent?). There are a couple of noisy sequences that will give your speakers a workout, but for the most part the track is dominated by dialogue.
Supplements include a commentary with director Susanna White, some brief featurettes ("New Film, New Story," "Magical Moves," "Mr. Edelweiis," "Emma Thompson Becomes Nanny McPhee," "The Pigs," "A Look Inside" and "The Mud") and some deleted scenes. The disc is BD-Live enabled, D-Box Enabled and equipped with the "My Scenes" feature.
Okay, the bit where the pigs do some synchronized swimming is kind of entertaining. I'm really only being polite; but it was a scene that made me smile.
Here's hoping that if Nanny McPhee returns again at some point, she turns up in a better story than this one.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Descriptive)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* D-Box Enabled
* My Scenes