For anyone who says they don’t make films like they used to any more, Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang provides a pleasant reminder that, in fact, sometimes they do. A refreshingly old-fashioned venture into Enid Blyton territory dressed up with the occasional big CGI flourish, it’s a nicely played story of childhood adventure and the importance of family.
Fans of the original Nanny McPhee will likewise enjoy Big Bang. Emma Thompson, scripting again, leaves things pretty much as they were before. Though set 100 years after the first film (we’re now in World War II), it’s a familiar story of a parent (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Mrs Green, whose husband is off fighting) over-run by unruly kids and a financial problem to solve.
Where its predecessor had Colin Firth’s widower needing to marry within the month to keep the family house, Big Bang has Gyllenhaal struggling to maintain the family farm and a sneaky brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) trying to sell it out from under her. Enter Thompson’s Nanny McPhee, ruling with a magic wooden stick and with the pedigree to deal with Gyllenhaal’s naughty kids and their embittered city cousins forced to stay with them.
Business as usual, then. And Thompson seems perfectly content to follow the template laid out in her first effort – often lifting dialogue verbatim – which makes Big Bang a little too familiar at times. She also seems in an almighty rush to get her Nanny front and centre. The film’s opening minutes fly by in a blur of rapid fire scenes, leaving her big introduction less a dramatic necessity than a rushed plot point.
But once Nanny McPhee enters, the film settles into its own rhythm. And it’s in Big Bang‘s first half that director Susanna White gets to have most fun. Last seen at the helm of TV’s Generation Kill, White takes the film in a very different visual direction than Kirk Jones’ opener. Out go the primary colours and confined spaces, in come golden hues and bigger landscapes.
Where the first film often flirted with pantomime, Big Bang goes bigger and bolder. Its early set pieces balance a grander, more impressive scale – a bird rescuing a bundle of letters from a fire while dodging a room full of frozen-in-time children that wouldn’t look out of place in a Harry Potter film – to giddy delights that will appeal to kids and adults alike (a seemingly Evil Dead 2-inspired slapstick routine being the highlight).
Thompson’s script doesn’t always give White opportunity to take flight in the way she does so well in the first half, though, and the story struggles to maintain an even pace throughout. It slows to a bit of a crawl after a synchronised-flying-pig routine, where even a trip into London can’t quite shake it up.
It is a tough balancing act at the heart of the film. Children scream excitedly at the mention of ginger beer and picnic like a Famous Five adventure, burping birds, cow poo-related slapstick and a threat of Rhys Ifans having his kidneys removed provide the comedy, while the film’s big CGI moments offer plenty of whizz-bang. Credit to Thompson and White for pulling it off for the most part, even if it is a little over-long at close to 110 minutes.
Big Bang also benefits from a committed cast. Gyllenhaal’s English accent is commendably good, although she does seem stuck on two settings: desperate exasperation and English rose. The children are better than expected too, especially Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as the posh cousins Cyril and Celia. Rhys Ifans scores a nice West Country accent (perhaps a little too Justin Lee Collins at times) while Maggie Smith adds a touch of class. Thompson has as good a time as she did first time around, making Nanny McPhee a disciplinarian who’d make Anne Robinson quake. A few unexpected cameos only add to the fun.
Most impressively, come what seems like the inevitable schmalzy ending, White injects a surprising emotional note. It leaves the film basking in a warm glow, one that makes a possible third instalment seem like not a bad idea at all.
Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang is released in the UK on Friday.