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Film review: 'Nanny McPhee Returns' better than the original

NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS — ★★1/2 — Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans; rated PG (vulgarity, violence, slurs); in general release

"Nanny McPhee Returns" is a rarity in the world of kids movies.

It's a not-completely unwelcome and not-completely terrible sequel, one that actually betters its predecessor. (In this case, that's the comedy-fantasy from 2005, an adaptation of the Christianna Brand books that didn't really warrant a follow-up movie.)

This happens pretty rarely with most types of movies, not just ones that are clearly targeted at families. But this film has just enough laughs and silliness for younger audiences.

However, it's not without its problems. At times, the film's sensibilities are as much low-brow as they are low-key. (There's quite a bit of animal dung and flatulence humor.)

Emma Thompson co-wrote the script and reprises her role as the title character. She's a mysterious, magical nanny with a penchant for showing up when and where she's "needed but not wanted."

In this case, she's needed at the rundown country estate of Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal). With her husband (a briefly seen Ewan McGregor) off fighting in World War II, Isabel's got her hands full.

She's trying to run the farm and be a mother to three children: Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Vincent (Oscar Steer).

And when their spoiled-rich cousins, Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), show up, poor Isabel is at wit's end.

If that wasn't bad enough, Isabel also has to contend with a greedy brother-in-law, Phil (Rhys Ifans), who's looking to sell off the farm to pay his gambling debts.

It's hard to look at Thompson when her face is filled with mismatched, buck teeth and other, supposed deformities, such as moles, warts and unwanted hair.

Yet her performance has its appeal. (Nanny McPhee can be pretty stern, even threatening, when she wants and needs to be.)

Necessary warmth comes from Gyllenhaal, whose British accent is more convincing than the one her brother, Jake, adopted in this summer's dud "Prince of Persia." And the film has one real scene-stealer in youngster Vlahos, whose dry delivery of one-liners is perfect.

Still, it's unfortunate to see that the movies is so heavy on crudities. As such, it's surprising to see that it was written by the usually dignified Thompson.

"Nanny McPhee Returns" is rated PG and features crude humor and jokes relating to various bodily functions (mostly gags that are scatological in nature), largely comic violence (rough-housing, slapstick and some accidental warfare), derogatory language and slurs, and scattered mild profanity (mostly religiously based). Running time: 109 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com