Susanna White | 105 mins | TV (HD) | U / PG
The first sequel (I say that in the hope there’ll be more) to Nanny McPhee offers more of the same. Normally that sounds like a criticism, but here what I mean is that it offers more entertainment in the same style.
It’s not a rehash. That’s quite clearly marked by the change of setting: where the first was Victorian, here we’re in the midst of World War II. Writer (and star) Emma Thompson puts the setting to use too: the plot takes in evacuated children, a father away at war, a trip to the war office, and a climactic unexploded bomb. The focus, however, and naturally, is on the children Nanny McPhee must sort out. She still teaches her five lessons, but they’re different lessons, and though some of the ways the children react are similar to the first film there are enough differences — and different set pieces — to make this a suitably standalone piece.
It’s still a sequel in all the best ways, though. Thompson treats the audience with respect in relation to the first film, playing on expectations and speeding through parts of the story we know. You don’t need to have seen it, but you’ll get a bit more if you have. Also as with the first film, there’s a perhaps surprising undercurrent of genuine emotion and serious issues. This is one of the things that marks these two films out from the overcrowded kids’ film genre: they’re prepared to tackle things in an appropriate way, never allowing them to overwhelm and make an Issue Film but not sanitising them because It’s For Kids. The ending to a lovely picnic may well bring a tear to your eye.
The child cast are excellent. That’s always worthy of note, but they’ve struck gold two films in a row now. Impressive. Maggie Gyllenhaal is always worth watching in my opinion, and here her English accent is astoundingly perfect. This isn’t the “American doing an English accent Well” of Renee Zellwegger’s Bridget Jones, this is the “if I didn’t know better I’d assume she was English” of… hardly anyone else, as far as I can recall. A supporting cast of once again recognisable faces (I won’t spoil any surprises) round things out nicely.
CGI is also used again to magical effect. And, even more than that, to very cute effect. It feels like a bunch of scampering CG piglets, or a cuddly CG baby elephant, should be a little disturbing and wrong, but they’re not — they’re all incredibly cute, in fact. Aww. And they get up to plenty of funny and entertaining things. As with most of the enjoyment in both Nanny McPhees, it may be aimed at children, but I think it’s done in a way that appropriately-hearted adults can enjoy too.
Director Susanna White was previously responsible for TV’s Bleak House, Jane Eyre and Generation Kill — all excellent, but certainly not the material that springs to mind for a family movie. Thankfully that dark, dirty, grainy style isn’t dragged kicking and screaming into this film, and instead we’re treated to the appropriate vibrant colours of a glowingly perfect English summer, the kind you get in memory and picture books and never in real life. It’s spot on.
I loved the first Nanny McPhee, which always sets a sequel up for failure. However, Thompson (though she’s not in the director’s chair I think we can be certain she’s in charge of this series) doesn’t disappoint. She’s taken a brave route by setting the film in a completely different era with an all-new supporting cast (except for one lovely last-minute surprise for the attentive), but it’s paid off handsomely. This is at least as magical as the first, perhaps even more so.