Nanny McPhee feels like an attempt to mimic the magic and creativity of Mary Poppins, but without the singing, the dancing and the fun. Some of the characters, though heavily stereotyped, do provide entertaining performances and the clash between rich city residents and poor rural farmers results in amusing situations, but much of this takes a backseat to silly wizardry and athletic farm animals. McPhee’s brand of magic rarely proves inspirational and bloated crows and synchronized pig swimming seem a waste of her talents. The boundaries of her abilities are never explained, nor are the reasons behind her slow shedding of unattractive features as the children learn their lessons. The severity of the antagonist’s crimes and non-magic related absurdities also feel out of place. Kids’ films benefit from a more lenient standard of reality, but they should still make sense to some degree.
Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) lives on a farm in WWII-era Britain with her three children – Norman (Asa Butterfield), Vincent (Oscar Steer), and Megsie (Lil Woods). With the pressures of her job at senile old Mrs. Docherty’s (Maggie Smith) village store, her conniving brother-in-law’s (Rhys Ifans) attempts to steal away the farm, and the arrival of her bratty niece (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and nephew (Eros Vlahos) from London, Isabel needs help but won’t admit it. As her troubles pile up, the mysterious Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) arrives to set things straight, and with a little love and a few magical powers, she begins teaching the children five valuable lessons of life that might just save their farm.
Nanny McPhee exists in a world where burping birds, swimming pigs and defecating cows are the major source of humor. It’s live action but the characters are cartoonish caricatures dressed in bright colors with wild-eyed expressions and overstated enthusiasm, falling all over themselves in mud, syrup and poo. Oddly, the film tries to combine slapstick, silliness and serious drama, with unsatisfactory results. In a wartime setting, the theme of a father not returning home to his family is quite realistic and somber, with flashbacks of Isabel’s wedding day and the horror of a yellow army notification denoting dying in the line of duty – yet the military is presented as comical buffoons, with a silly, Dr. Evil war office, goofy fighter pilots and a defective bomb. The melodrama is lost in the ridiculousness of the carefree, magical pig chase and mischievous baby elephant, while more alarming notions, such as forgery and kidney-thieving lunatics (Miss Topsey and Miss Turvey), displace the children’s storybook fun. It’s bizarre that the most despicable characters are also supposed to provide comic relief.
Most of Nanny McPhee Returns is so brainless it’s funny, but the charm of a mystical babysitter reforming naughty children is nearly absent. And so is the originality. The magic is never creative, and the kids are generally obnoxious, while McPhee lacks the grace and angelic voice of Mary Poppins, the insanity of The Cat in the Hat, the mischievousness of Adventures in Babysitting, or even the bravado of Shane (which isn’t that much of a reference stretch when considering McPhee’s inevitable departure). The children think she’s a war weapon, she claims to be an army nanny, and everyone is reluctant to believe in magic, even after spending a night in bed with a goat, a cow and a computer animated elephant. The audience will probably realize, shortly after the first scene, that there is only one Nanny McPhee story to tell – her return merely marks the second time she’ll be refining ornery, undisciplined youngsters, with the help of a powerful wand and physical ugliness.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)