For all the respect that its considerable cast commands (especially headliner Emma Thompson), Nanny McPhee Returns is just too self-conscious to ever take off. Thompson, who also wrote the script for the film and its predecessor, and whose talents as a screenwriter were evident from her lithe script for Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, proves that she still has a knack for banter. She just doesn't know what to do with that modest talent.
Thompson spends much of Nanny McPhee Returns's interminable 109-minute runtime trying to set her homely titular heroine apart from Mary Poppins, her most obvious influence. McPhee is just like Julie Andrews's instructive nanny except she's ugly, has gone through military training, and doesn't sing. She's no fun any way you slice it, but then again, she doesn't have to be because, as she teaches her pint-sized charges, "When you need me but do not want me, I must stay. When you want me but do not need me, then I have to go." Until a spoonful of sugar stops making the medicine go down, I don't think anyone will ever really need Thompson's snaggletoothed disciplinarian.
That could be because much of the plot in Nanny Mcphee Returns feels improvised. Nanny McPhee suddenly descends on the idyllic, pastel-colored country home of Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her brood of three kids to help solve a myriad of immaterial problems that she mostly only indirectly solves by threatening people with her magic exploding cane (no, it doesn't make more sense in context; just go with it). These problems have Isabel completely overwhelmed: Her comically senile boss, Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith), is running her ragged at work and her brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans), bet Isabel's farm away and now must either hand over the deed or his kidneys.
But nanny McPhee never touches either of those problems: Just as regular home aides won't do windows, magical nannies apparently won't touch sleazy flimflam men and brain-damaged old biddies. No, nanny McPhee is there to handle Isabel's children, though it's often hard to tell what exactly is supposed to be wrong with them. The Green children are certainly not spoiled: They diligently shovel pig shit and clean up the house without being asked. Even the youngest Green helps out in his own way by using a bicycle-powered Scratch-O-Matic that their absent father, a soldier fighting in WWII, devised to groom swine. Maybe nanny McPhee is needed because Isabel's kids just don't get along with their snooty cousins, who are temporarily relocated to the Green farm because their father (Ralph Fiennes) is getting a divorce and wants to spare them. No, wait, these kids just need their father and hence must fall in line and blindly support their mother like a good military unit—I mean, group of well-behaved young Brits. Yeah, that's it. Also, apparently every time nanny McPhee, a decorated veteran with a medal in "basket-making," teaches the Green kids a lesson, one of her defining facial blemishes magically disappears. The only lesson I took away from this is that good deeds can make women with unpleasant faces pretty.
More than anything else, Nanny McPhee Returns caves in under the weight of Thompson's inability to pull her material together into anything even momentarily meaningful. Most of the jokes are so strained and eager to please that they fail to earn more than a scanty chuckle here and there, and almost all of the film's flights of magical whimsy are sloppy and ill-advised: Flying pigs and a black bird named Mr. Edelweiss that belches effusively after eating explosive putty are among the lowlights.
Worst of all, McPhee's insistence on imparting life lessons about how to survive during wartime is frankly inexplicable and more than a little overdone. If this movie were consistent in both showing and telling us about McPhee's teachings, they might have some heft. Sadly, her ethos of taking battle-forged lemons and making war-torn lemonade is undermined when the kids find out—spoiler!—that their dad is killed in action. Of course, they're rewarded for their delusional persistence and after a visit to the War Office, it's revealed that he's just missing in action. By film's end, he even makes an appearance (and he's played by a Jedi). Thompson anticipated that her viewers only really wanted a coherent narrative and hence gave them what no one needed: more wishy-washy sentimentality.