A spoonful of sugar, a half-cup of schmaltz and some synchronized-swimming CGI piglets help the moral medicine go down a second time in family-friendly “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.” Noisy, as its title might suggest, but good, muck-splattered fun, this sequel follows the same narrative trajectory as its cash-cow predecessor, but transplants the title character to WWII-era Blighty to train a whole new family. Brand recognition should help “Bang” earn big bucks, especially in the U.K., while the lack of 3D may prove as much a help as a hindrance in a market saturated with multidimensional product.
Quintessentially middle-class-minded and parent-pleasing, the franchise lauds above all good manners and happiness through imposed obedience; in that respect, Nanny McPhee is like the Dog Whisperer in a black-crepe frock. Based on the “Nurse Matilda” children’s book series by Christianna Brand, the Victorian era-set “Nanny McPhee” (2005) revolved around a widowed father (Colin Firth) and his unruly litter of seven, whom Nanny McPhee coerced into good behavior via magical means.
Rather than catch up with the original characters, “Bang” airlifts its heroine across decades into a family living in rural England during the Blitz. Once again, one parent is absent, this time the father, Rory (played oh-so-briefly by Ewan McGregor), who’s away fighting for his country. Temporarily single mother Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal, essaying a fair Brit accent) has to contend not only with her own bickering brood of three — 11-year-old Norman (Asa Butterfield), middle child Megsie (Lil Woods) and little Vincent (Oscar Steer) — but also her sister’s two spoiled brats, Cyril (Eros Vlahos, a standout with knockout comic timing) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson, also excellent), who’ve come to sit out the war in the supposedly safe countryside. The latter siblings are highly unimpressed with the Greens’ mud-strewn country digs.
Arriving unbidden, but explaining she’s been sent by the government, Nanny McPhee (once again played by Emma Thompson, who also scripted both films) enters the fray, appearing once again as a snaggle-toothed, grizzled crone. But after the children learn each of the five lessons she sets out to teach them (“to stop fighting,” “to share nicely” and so on), she loses a disfigurement and emerges youthful and fresh-faced by the end, instilling the overall lesson that anyone who is beloved is always beautiful.
Clearly loath to mess with a sure thing, Thompson and producers Lindsay Doran, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have stuck closely to the original pic’s template, right down to the inclusion of CGI animals displaying outrageous antics and an ending involving a last flashy trick from the supernanny. There’s a sense that helmer Susanna White — making her first feature after impressive TV work on “Generation Kill” and adaptations of “Bleak House” and “Jane Eyre” — hasn’t that much room to make her own mark here, but she does a capable enough job, coaxing good perfs from the child cast and boisterous ones from the grown-ups, which serve to highlight Thompson’s almost eerie stillness as McPhee.
Kids are likely to gorge on it all like chocoholics on Easter Sunday, while accompanying adults are less likely to be bored than they would be at most kidpics, thanks to amusing turns by Sinead Matthews and Katy Brand as a pair of maniacal hitwomen and Maggie Smith as a doddery old dear, first seen cheerfully buried up to her waist in flour, recalling Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.”
Simon Evan-Jones’ editing is perhaps a bit too frantic, cross-cutting so relentlessly at one point that some setups are estranged from their punchlines. Score by James Newton Howard expresses itself in huge orchestral gestures that almost threaten to overwhelm the mood, but it still works. Period design throughout is highly stylized, adding a not-unwelcome modern sensibility, although the costumes for Gyllenhaal’s character arguably go a little too far down the contempo road, resembling recent retro creations on 21st-century catwalks.
Universal is releasing the film Stateside under the title “Nanny McPhee Returns.”