Aug. 25 2010 12:00 AM

Emma Thompson returns in a suitably zany adventure

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The question: When will Emma Thompson get around to making a
sequel to “Nanny McPhee”? The answer: When pigs fly.

But, as Eleanor of Aquitaine promised in “The Lion in
Winter,” there is “pork in the treetops” in “Nanny McPhee Returns,” which
transplants Thompson’s devious disciplinarian to the British countryside during
World War II, a device that allows the star and screenwriter to incorporate a
bit of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” — Nanny even has a motorcycle — into the

As in the original, Thompson ties together slapstick and
sentimentality as she introduces the overwhelmed Isabel Green (Maggie
Gyllenhaal, equipped with a respectable accent and an assortment of well-worn
housedresses), a mother of three who’s at sixes and sevens, thanks to wartime shortages,
demanding kids, a failing farm and the pressures of managing a shop in which
her elderly, energetic and utterly inept assistant (Maggie Smith) regularly
ruins the merchandise. Isabel’s husband is off fighting somewhere, but his
dreadful brother, Phil (Rhys Ifans), is uncomfortably close at hand, pressuring
Isabel to sell her property in order to pay off his gambling debts.

On top of everything else, Isabel must now contend with a
visit from her niece Celia (Roie Taylor-Ritson) and nephew Cyril (Eros Vlahos),
a pair of posh city-raised snobs who call her home “the British Museum of poo”
and quickly instigate a little war of their own with Isabel’s children.

The frenzied first half-hour of “Returns” (released overseas
earlier this year as “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang”) sets up this sad
situation with the broad overacting and exaggerated silliness of a British
pantomime show.

When Nanny (Thompson, obscured by warts, moles and a
snaggle-tooth) arrives on the scene to tame the unruly kids and give a bit of
hope to the helpless Isabel — “I’m a wartime nanny: I’ve been deployed,” she
explains to Isabel — the movie’s tone becomes more whimsical, as if “Mary
Poppins” had been rewritten by Monty Python. Mary Poppins had a parrot as a
sidekick, but Nanny is stuck with a pesky crow named Mr. Edelweiss, who’s
suffering from “the collywobbles.”

While there are occasional notes of seriousness in
Thompson’s screenplay (particularly in Ralph Fiennes’ chilly cameo as Cyril and
Celia’s starchy father), most of its messages are couched in comedy or
surrounded by flights of fantasy. In keeping with the mid-1940s setting,
“Returns” features a delicious tribute to swimming star Esther Williams, an
off-course UXB (“unexploded bomb,” Celia explains), and a pair of curvy flirts
who wear the same peroxide-blonde hairdos sported by Barbara Stanwyck in
“Double Indemnity” and Lana Turner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”;
unsurprisingly, they turn out to be up to no good.

And yes, that airborne swine makes an appearance as well, proving
conclusively that Nanny McPhee will go to any lengths to teach a lesson — or to
get a laugh. Happily, she often succeeds on both counts.