Blu-Ray Review: ‘Nanny McPhee Returns’ Sure to Delight Children of All Ages

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CHICAGO – Magical nannies, dancing animals, great gusts of wind, lyrical life lessons and cute kids in need of a father. You don’t need to be practically perfect in every way in order to find these ingredients a trifle familiar. Robert Stevenson’s 1964 masterpiece “Mary Poppins” used these elements better than anyone has before or since, resulting in what is unquestionably the best live-action Disney film ever made.

“Poppins” is also one of the most influential children’s pictures ever made, inspiring countless variations and copy-cats. Yet Cristianna Brand’s “Nurse Matilda” books took the formula and peppered it with gleefully macabre wit. They centered on a hideously ugly nursemaid who resembled the Supernanny from Hell, until her charges started to become well behaved, thus erasing her multiple blemishes. In 2005, Emma Thompson adapted the books into “Nanny McPhee,” a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy that felt like the offspring of P.L. Travers and Roald Dahl. Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0

Five years later, “McPhee” has indeed returned in a sequel that raises the stakes yet never truly challenges the reliable blueprint. Was there any pressing need for this film to exist? Not at all. Yet the film justifies its existence by providing the type of superior family entertainment that Hollywood rarely seems to produce outside of Pixar. The film is gentle, playful, genuinely sweet and refreshingly devoid of the cynical commercialism that Jerry Bruckheimer has recently brought to Disney. While the first film told the tale of a widower (Colin Firth) attempting to maintain control over his children, “Returns” takes place on a farm, where a working mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) finds herself overwhelmed while her husband is away at war (the details of which are never specified). Her three children (Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods and Oscar Steer) are soon joined by two stuck-up cousins (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson) from the city. Needless to say, much fighting ensues until McPhee materializes. After a couple quick lessons, the kids are instantly on good terms with each other, thus allowing the film to focus on more pressing matters, such as the questionable fate of the family farm, as well as the whereabouts of Gyllenhaal’s husband.

Emma Thompson stars in Susanna White’s Nanny McPhee Returns.
Emma Thompson stars in Susanna White’s Nanny McPhee Returns.
Photo credit: Universal Home Entertainment

Director Susanna White (“Generation Kill”) injects the material with energy and exuberance without ever compromising its dramatic momentum. McPhee is not a character so much as a catalyst for change, and Thompson allows her co-stars to take center stage, eliciting natural performances from the young actors, particularly Vlahos, who occasionally resembles a pint-sized Ricky Gervais. They’re well supported by a dream ensemble, including Sam Kelly and the incomparable Maggie Smith as a couple of lovably clueless coots. Rhys Ifans steals the show as the scheming Uncle Phil, proving himself to be a marvelously gifted physical comedian. There are few things kids find more hilarious than woefully incompetent adults, and Ifans milks that fact for all it’s worth. Yet the film’s best sequence is also its most dramatic, taking place in a war office that has the same hushed tension as the bank in “Poppins.” Butterfield is there to inquire about his father, while Vlahos is there to reconnect with his own distant parent, Lord Gray, played with beautiful restraint by Ralph Fiennes. The tenderness and emotional complexity of that sequence anchors the film throughout its frenzied climax, which actually includes the line, “Cut the blue wire!” Was Bruckheimer brought on for a last-minute re-write?

Nanny McPhee Returns was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Dec. 14, 2010.
Nanny McPhee Returns was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Dec. 14, 2010.
Photo credit: Universal Home Entertainment

“Nanny McPhee Returns” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, Spanish, French and Descriptive Video Service audio tracks. The enhanced clarity brings added dazzle to several sequences, particularly those set in a gleaming barley field. Thompson’s multiple “Poppins” homages are all the more clear in the disc’s 15 minutes of deleted scenes, which include further footage of the flying pigs that the children encounter (there are a few blatant echoes here of the carousel scene in “Poppins”). These digital creatures were meant to improve on the popular dancing donkey from the first film, yet their extended scene is one of the few in the picture that doesn’t quite work. There’s also an alternate take featuring Ifans that was deemed too gruesome for American audiences, though it remained in the U.K. version (titled “Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang”). In the 15-minute making-of featurette, movement director Toby Sedgwick is seen coaching the children in the art of slapstick. Viewers are also offered a closer look at Thompson’s makeup, as well as the mud-filled farm that proved a nightmare for crew members.

Rounding out the disc is a snoozy commentary in which Thompson is disappointingly absent, leaving White to merely discuss her influences. She does rattle off a few attention-grabbing bits of trivia, the most startling of which is Vlahos’s identity as a stand-up comedian (he’s been performing since the age of ten). White also mentions that Thompson continuously tweaked the children’s dialogue during production, thus granting the kids more freedom and spontaneity in their performances. One of the film’s funniest moments also takes place in the war office, when McPhee recognizes a soldier as one of her former charges. If there is a third “McPhee” installment, I suggest that it casts the formidable nanny as a general who teaches both sides of the war effort to stop fighting, thus causing her blemishes to vanish once she’s achieved world peace.

‘Nanny McPhee Returns’ is released by Universal Home Entertainment and stars Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Oscar Steer, Sam Kelly, Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes. It was written by Emma Thompson and directed by Susanna White. It was released on Dec. 14th, 2010. It is rated PG. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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