It seems Emma Thompson is now in possession of an inventive, humorous family film franchise. Back in 2005, "Nanny McPhee" was a mild Brit import, looking to jazz up the kiddie picture norm with a roundhouse punch of color, playful casting, and a firm grasp of the absurd to balance out the heart. Now there's a sequel, "Nanny McPhee Returns," which improves on the elements Thompson works hard to maintain in her screenplays. It's an amusing, wonderfully arranged sequel that brands the character as a cinematic force to be reckoned with, hopefully for the few more adventures to come.
Attempting to hold together a dilapidated farm during WWII, Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is not only dealing with the absence of her soldier husband, but the rambunctious nature of her three kids (Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, and Oscar Steer), who spend their days futilely trying to keep the land in order. Compounding Isabel's anxiety is the arrival of two spoiled cousins (Rosie Taylor-Ritson and Eros Vlahos), who immediately bring about further chaos with their appalling attitudes. Coming to the rescue is Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), a ghoulish woman with a magical cane capable of helping the children learn five rules of proper behavior. As McPhee helps to unify the kids, Isabel's brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans), comes to swindle the family out of the farm, hoping to sell the land and pay off his incredible gambling debts.
"Nanny McPhee Returns" (titled "Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang" in Europe) doesn't pick up directly after the last picture, instead fancifully floating ahead in time. Sort of. Thompson schemes up a vague interpretation of British wartime worry, giving viewers a similar scenario of single-parent English countryside hijinks, only here the story lingers longer on magical occurrences and fantastical characters, including McPhee's putty-eating, gaseous bird pal, Mr. Edelweiss.
Director Susan White connects the two films with explosively colorful cinematography and a strident pitch of naughty behavior (given a major fecal squish to keep kids grossed out), but "Returns" takes a sharper route of delivery. Thompson's script feels out a grander scale of danger with bombing raid concern (the "Big Bang" of the international title) and a more edgy villain in Uncle Phil, who's facing his own troubles dodging Miss Topsey (Sinead Matthews) and Miss Turvey (Katy Brand), two cheery enforcers threatening the frightened man with bodily harm. "Returns" has a delightful bite to it that does wonders to counteract the syrup, matching a troubling era with appropriate financial and absentee parent quandaries, forcing the kids into action not only to save the farm, but to keep the spirit of their M.I.A. father alive -- a subplot that brings McPhee and the two elder boys into London via flying motorcycle to meet with the stern head of the War Office.
With a stronger sense of visual effects, "Returns" casts a more potent spell, playing with wacky animal behaviors (the farm pigs perform a water ballet when released) and the aforementioned nibbly bird antics. White maintains a surprising confidence with such madness, shaping the sequel into a more endearing, arresting picture without sacrificing the basics of youthful tomfoolery, mysterious nanny magic, and gooey family film triumphs. White also brings out the best in her cast, with Gyllenhaal unnervingly appealing as the harried mother, Ifans hoofing it up as the paranoid heavy, and Thompson stiffening her stern carriage as the title character. A dash of amusing star cameos from top Euro talent help to add some surprise as well.
The VC-1 encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation is a sheer blast of colors to support the family film mood of the piece. Farmland greens and yellows are extraordinarily pronounced, helping the film reach a cartoon appearance that keeps matters light and cheery. Costumes are equally as explosive, with the image detail maintaining the intricate whimsical look of the film, cleanly expressing the heightened appearance of the clothes. Gruesome details on McPhee are equally preserved, allowing the viewer to inspect every last hair on every last wart. Ick. Shadow detail remains in fine shape for interiors, creating a nice balance for the blinding light of the cinematography. Skintones are irradiated, but purposeful to the picture's mission of merriment.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is a hectic experience, with a swarm of directional activity taking over the movie at times, greatly reinforcing the visual chaos. The surrounds are constantly engaged, dealing with all manner of sound effects and scoring, creating a hearty feel of cartoon energy that feeds into the picture's aim to please. Dialogue exchanges are a bit difficult to track at times, occasionally lost in the swirl of aural information, but the general feel of the scenes are preserved, along with the accent work. Low-end arrives during more intense encounters with wartime elements, while soundtrack selections have a pleasing command. DVS, Spanish, and French tracks are also included.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Susanna White is a standard affair, keeping close to the basics as the filmmaker explores the motivation behind the visual elements and storytelling essentials. A few dead spots halt the progress of the track, but when White finds something to chat up, she's a suitable guide to the details within the frame, eager to celebrate her filmmaking accomplishments.
"Deleted Scenes" (14:57) offers an alternate opening to the film, some character business with the local townsfolk, further frolicking in poo, an unfinished flying pig carousel sequence, an extended threat for Phil, and a pair of alternate endings.
"New Film, New Story" (4:08) establishes the narrative in this promotional featurette, using interviews with cast and crew to explore the basic elements of the sequel, with some BTS footage used to break up the hard sell.
"Magical Moves" (1:52) talks to the young actors of the film, who extol the virtues of smashing props to bits and practicing slapstick stunt work.
"Mr. Edelweiss" (2:04) heads to the avian perspective, spotlighting the training and comfort zone of McPhee's number one bird.
"Emma Thompson Becomes Nanny McPhee" (1:37) is a time-lapse look at the make-up application that transformed a lovely actress into a hideous domestic savior.
"The Pigs" (3:42) shows off the extensive effort require to wrangle pigs into magical beings for the film's musical centerpiece.
"The Mud" (1:57) explores the misery of working in the thick brown stuff, observing the crew fighting to move camera equipment around, while the younger actors delight in the mess.
"A Look Inside" (2:37) is an extended commercial mixing bits of the previous featurettes into a concise promotional push.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
"Nanny McPhee Returns" doesn't reinvent the wheel, instead tracing over the original picture with a more secure touch, slowly sniffing out fresh ways to cover the same ground through a welcome push of imagination, using its delicate sequel position to up the ante both visually and dramatically, while retaining the core appeal of the central character. It's a sound sequel, even managing to create excitement for whatever shenanigans Thompson has up her sleeve five years from now.