Emma Thompson is Nanny McPhee, who works her magic when a family is threatened with losing its farm. (Universal Pictures)
Nanny McPhee is back to teach a new batch of children life lessons in "Nanny McPhee Returns," the mixed sequel to 2006's "Nanny McPhee."
McPhee, played by the regal Emma Thompson, is a hideous creation: Hairy moles dot her face, her unibrow is an unfettered mess, and an elongated bucktooth protrudes over her bottom lip. That those blemishes begin to disappear each time her kids learn from her teachings offers a somewhat disturbing statement on the value of physical beauty.
In the film, penned by Thompson and based on Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" books, McPhee arrives to help Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who's in over her head trying to save her family's farm. She has three young children and also is caring for her niece and nephew, while simultaneously trying to block her deadbeat brother Phil (Rhys Ifans) from selling the property to cover his gambling debts. The backdrop is WWII England, and her husband is off at war and hasn't been heard from in months.
In walks McPhee, wielding her magical walking stick and attempting to restore order to the family. The kids eventually learn valuable truths but not before the film employs a surprising number of jokes with punch lines that arrive via flatulence or belching sounds.
Both McPhee and the film are wholly British creations, and while the themes of togetherness are universal, the humor sometimes isn't. And how many American kids can relate to the children's excitement over ginger beer?
The presence of Thompson lends "Nanny McPhee Returns" a pedigree it ultimately doesn't live up to. Its heart is in the right place, but the execution could use some tidying.