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Nancy McPhee Returns

Mostly for the Under-10 Set

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Apparently, Academy Award-winner Emma Thompson, who headlines and wrote the screenplay for Nancy McPhee Returns, thinks the world needs another Nanny McPhee film. The average moviegoer doesn’t, in fact, need a Nanny McPhee sequel, but preteen children will probably find much to like in this film.

In Nanny McPhee, the title character (Thompson), helped a motherless family in Victorian England overcome intra-family conflicts. She even found a new mother for the children and a new wife for their father. The Mary Poppinish McPhee didn’t also get romantically involved and didn’t change as a character.

The sequel takes the seemingly ageless McPhee to England during the Second World War. Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal, struggling with a British accent) runs a farm outside of London while her husband fights in the war. Her rambunctious, stubborn children, Norman Green (Asa Butterfield), Megsie Green (Lil Woods), and Vincent Green (Oscar Steer), give her little time for R&R. When their London-raised elitist, snobbish cousins, Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia Gray (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), arrive a day earlier, all heck breaks loose on the farm. Isabel quickly loses control over the fighting cousins, which, in turn, sets up Nanny McPhee’s magical arrival and the first mention of the need/want line.

McPhee gives the children five new life lessons to learn — lessons they have to learn by doing and acting, rather than by rote memorization — non-fighting, sharing, cooperating, showing bravery and self-sacrifice, and, finally, having faith in an alls-well-that-ends-well future. The last lesson might strike some moviegoers as questionable, but given the magical setting for Nanny McPhee and the sequel, it’s mostly forgivable. What isn’t as forgivable, however, is the linear nature of the challenges the children face or, at least for the first thirty or forty minutes, the constant barrage of unfunny “poo” jokes squarely aimed at children under 10 (or younger). And in only the second film in the series, McPhee’s actions already feel too familiar and predictable.

That familiarity and predictability is offset by charming, engaging performances by the young, mostly talented cast, cameos by well-known actors, and, despite the inherent limitations of the character, Emma Thompson’s obvious pleasure in playing the title character. Maybe, and this is just a suggestion, Thompson can give Nanny McPhee more to do or even a character arc in the second, presumably last, sequel in the series.