When I saw the first Nanny McPhee movie in 2005, my daughter was 4 and Emma Thomson made me cry. Last night, my daughter (now eight) and I saw the sequel, Nanny McPhee Returns, and I was never close to tears.
What broke me up in the original Nanny was the line, repeated in Nanny II: “When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. When you want me, but do not need me, then I have to go.” When Nanny McPhee (played by writer and producer Emma Thompson in a bulbous Jimmy Durante nose, hairy warts and monobrow) first says this to her seven naughty charges, it’s a paradoxical threat that bewilders them.
But parents got it – Nanny McPhee’s pronouncement got to the heart of the parenthood paradox. Kids will be naughty pains in the ass who may hate you at times but always need you desperately. And then they stop needing you so much. And then you have to let them go.
Nanny McPhee, like the long tradition of magical British nannies before her (including Supernanny!), is meant to teach us something about parenting. In Mary Poppins, Dad left the bank and Mom stopped suffragetting to go fly a kite with their kids. In the original Nanny McPhee, Colin Firth learns he has to stop playing the mourning widower and start hugging and kissing his seven sons and daughters.
The trouble with Nanny McPhee Returns is that the parent who Nanny McPhee comes to help is already a really good mom. Sure, she’s haggard and overworked and frightened – her husband is fighting in WWII. But she’s loving and kind to all three of her kids and the two cousins who evacuated from London during the blitz. (A children’s literary tradition; see Narnia.)
The lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the overwhelmed mom who’s running what appears to be a mud farm while also working in Maggie Smith’s grocery store to pay off the tractor bill to harvest the wheat to keep from selling the farm while awaiting word from her husband and stalling her brother-in-law who wants to sell the farm to pay off the thugs collecting his saloon bills. And two rich brats from London have just arrived to sneer and whine.
Certainly she’s in no position to sneeze at a magical nanny. But Nanny McPhee Returns doesn’t have the touching meta-message about children’s (and parents’) behavior. In the first McPhee, each time a child learned a lesson (to listen, to say “please” and “thank you), one of Nanny McPhee’s face-full of ugly features disappears. A wart dissolves, a snaggle tooth vanishes. By the time the well-behaved children adore her, she is beautiful. And she has to go.
In the second film, lessons are learned and warts disappear, but it all seems rushed and secondary to a thick plot chock full of anything and everything a kid might enjoy: goats, cows, and a baby elephant! City kids in fancy clothes slip and fall in ankle-deep mud! A raven burps continuously! Nanny rides in on a motorcycle with two boys in the sidecar and it flies! (In case you missed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.) And just to make sure each and every kid in the audience is happy, adorable piglets get loose and wind up climbing up trees and need to be captured by the kids. What’s not to love?
And, yes, adults too will enjoy the good-natured family fun. The Nanny McPhee movies, based on the Nurse Matilda series of the 60s and 70s, harken back to an old-fashioned genre, the 1970s live-action family movies where villains were cute and harmless. No Voldemort. No slutty tweens. No overdone CGI. Or 3-D.
No tongue in cheek quipery/irony/pop culture. No one needs to crack a computer code to save the planet.
It’s a welcomed, underdazzling flick. For parents, there’s a disappointing paucity of Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes and even Emma Thompson. The warring cousins make peace too easily. Their lessons are learned too readily. And while young kids might be satisfied with all the frenetic slapstick, the human element, which was so nicely handled in the first flick, gets short shrift in this film which was originally, boisterously titled, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. You may enjoy a cheap laugh. But you won’t get choked up.