Spoonfuls of Sugar
There is a sorry tradition among children’s movies of late that dictates — or so it appears, so prevalent is the conceit — that bratty kids are adorable, or, at least, the means by which reluctant father figures are “domesticated,” as if parenting for a male person were a form of punishment. These aren’t the kinds of movies any right-thinking mom or dad would want to let their kids consume, seeing as how they invariably celebrate misbehavior so extreme it rises to the level of felony, and no one needs kids getting any new ideas about how to be brats. And these films are also impossible for non-brain-dead adults to endure, so catastrophically stupid are they.
If only we could set Nanny McPhee loose on, say, Jackie Chan’s The Spy Next Door, from early this year, just one recent example of this sorry subgenre. She is the perfect antidote for this upside-down fantasy of parental indulgence and tolerance of “cute” munchkin monsters as the norm.
Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal: The Dark Knight, Stranger Than Fiction) is certainly a frazzled mom, and her young children — Norman (Asa Butterfield: The Wolfman, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), Megsie (Lil Woods), and Vincent (Oscar Steer) — are more than a handful. But there’s good reason for them all to be on edge. Dad is away fighting a war, and hasn’t written in three months. (The slightly fantastical 1940ish English-countryside setting suggests World War II, of course, but this could just as easily be a whimsical portrait of today’s world.) Mom is trying to run the family farm while also working a job in a shop in town and while also fending off her brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans: Pirate Radio, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), who is pressuring her to sell the farm (he owns half of it and needs the money a sale would bring in). And now, city cousins Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) are coming for a visit, and the place is an absolute mess that simply must be cleaned up before they arrive.
There is understandably quite a bit of legitimate stress-making to go around.
Where the first Nanny McPhee film saw a band of monstrous children battling their widower father, here it’s the earthy country kids, who slap around in mud and think it grand, versus the snooty city kids, for whom exile to a farm constitutes a shocking separation from civilization… until magical Nanny McPhee turns up, an “army nanny,” she explains to Isabel, who has been “deployed” to assist in this frightful domestic battlefield. Emma Thompson (An Education, Pirate Radio), who also wrote the script, is once again a stern and scary presence at first, as Nanny McPhee, not just physically — though her warts and snaggletooth and her heft certainly contribute to an overwhelming sense of stolid implacability — but also as a personality: she is not someone who brooks any disobedience or dismissal. And she’s got magic to back up her instructions, magic that will make spiteful or hateful little children sorry they have not been nicer.
Some fun cameos — Bill Bailey, Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor — aside, Nanny McPhee Returns is more for the kiddies: it lacks the dark humor with adult appeal of the first Nanny McPhee. But it’s hardly a chore to sit through as an adult, either. The brighter, lighter silliness of this sequel — cute swimming piglets, a burping bird, cow patties put to yucky use — may be kindergarten comedy, but it doesn’t overwhelm the more pertinent points about learning to be generous, cooperative, and kind the story gently sets out. TV director Susanna White, making her feature debut, works magic herself, transforming the lessons into something that feels almost accidental, happy side effects of the madcap adventures the children get themselves caught up in. And again unspoken is the lesson of Nanny McPhee herself: she gradually becomes more beautiful the better behaved the children become — her warts disappear, for instance — as if to suggest that manners and kindness are not something to be enforced with unpleasant discipline but attitudes worth committing to simply because they make the world a nicer place to live in.