When Emma Thompson donned a bulbous nose and a protruding snaggletooth to play the title character in 2005’s charming family fantasy “Nanny McPhee,” she was seen as playing a kind of anti-Mary Poppins, using a magical walking stick instead of a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
Watching Thompson settle again into the taciturn character in “Nanny McPhee Returns,” it’s clear the actress absolutely loves channeling her inner Shane, playing a calm, authoritative enforcer who arrives, unbidden, to clean up a mess and then rides off into the sunset when her work is done.
The new “McPhee,” directed by Susanna White, tells a slightly different story but uses the same blend of broad comedy, respectful moralizing and special effects that made the first film a success. Thompson again wrote the screenplay, putting an emphasis on language, emotion and manners, qualities typically in short supply in movies geared toward families.
Where the first film pitted children against adults, the follow-up finds Nanny McPhee mediating a conflict between two sets of children. Thompson has moved the action forward a century to 1940s England, where frazzled Isabel Green ( Maggie Gyllenhaal) copes with tending to her three rambunctious kids and running a muddy farm while her husband ( Ewan McGregor in a brief cameo) is off fighting in the war.
The Green children bicker and battle, but they’re just warming up for the arrival of their prissy London cousins, Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), neither of whom is happy to be away from their city digs.
“We come from the land of soap and indoor toilets,” Cyril announces, surveying the muck surrounding him.
Cyril’s fighting words lead to much destruction of bric-a-brac and threaten to impinge on Gyllenhaal’s luminous glow. (The actress, who affects a nice, Thompson-like British accent, has never looked more beautiful.) Enter Ms. McPhee, who proceeds to lay down her five laws of cooperation, which revolve around sharing and caring and tidying up. Basic stuff, though often easier said than done. (Are those magical walking sticks for sale anywhere?)
Grown-ups in the audience will enjoy seeing well-chosen vets like Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes turn up in key roles, not to mention piglets performing some CGI synchronized swimming a la Busby Berkeley. The animals are impossibly adorable, but never threaten to upset the film’s delicate balance between magic and a more sobering reality. It’s a fairy tale in the best tradition.