Animated films may come to dominate the family-film genre but they’ll never entirely edge out their live-action counterparts -- not so long as there exist characters like Nanny McPhee whose charms could never be properly rendered in a computer. After a half-decade away from the big screen Emma Thompson’s magical governess is back to take on a new batch of recalcitrant children in Nanny McPhee Returns. She's gotten better with age.
The second chapter of the Nanny McPhee saga which marks a definitive improvement over the first sends the unsightly taskmaster to the English countryside where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the mother of three rambunctious tots (Oscar Steer Asa Butterfield and Lil Woods) has been left alone to raise her unruly brood and manage the family farm while her husband is away at war. (Though it’s never specifically mentioned the film is presumed to take place during World War II.) Harried but capable Isabel’s tenuous grip on her unfortunate situation begins to loosen when a pair of privileged London cousins (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and a shady indebted brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) arrive to wreak fresh havoc in her already chaotic existence. On the verge of losing control of both her farm and her family she opens the door to find Nanny McPhee’s wart-covered visage staring back at her and not a moment too soon.
Though for the most part a breezy and whimsical fable Nanny McPhee Returns is unafraid to scatter a few dramatic bombshells amid its mix of lighthearted fantasy and practical life lessons trusting correctly that its youthful audience can handle a few bleak bumps en route to its happy ending. The biggest revelation of the film aside from director Susanna White and screenwriter/star Thompson’s bawdy comedic sensibilities (one of the film’s less pleasant lessons: kids never tire of scatological humor) is the proficiency of its child actors so often the weak link in even the best family fare. It’s their winning performances along with that of the always excellent Gyllenhaal that help make Nanny McPhee Returns not just an entertaining experience but an endearing one as well.
Although it's modern day there's a distinct Raymond Chandler-esque feel to this story about a petty thief named Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) who lucks into a movie audition and finds himself heading to Hollywood. Harry is replacing Colin Farrell as a detective in a film and to get the realism of the part he's shown the detecting ropes by Det. Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) also known as Gay Perry--because he's gay. Then Harry runs into his old high school sweetie Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) at a Hollywood party. She believes Harry is a real detective and begs him to help her. That's when the bodies begin coming out of the woodwork. Greed torture and mayhem ensue. If there's any way to prove that Downey is back in true form this is it. He's glib charming deep and truly becomes a modern-day Chaplin in this very trampy role. Kilmer avoids some of the stereotypes of playing gay but as he points out "we're not good cop bad cop we're fag and New Yorker." Both deserve awards. Monaghan holds her own as a feisty red-head. Even Downey's real-life son Indio--who plays his character in the early flashback scenes--shows incredible promise as an actor. This is the Shane Black’s directorial debut the same guy who wrote Lethal Weapon and Long Kiss Goodnight. He knows violence that’s for sure but he also has a keen sense of humor. In Kiss Kiss he mixes them well. Black sets the mood with Downey--giving his best Bogie-like voiceover-- narrating the action along the way. This is better than Get Shorty as far as a dark look into the entertainment industry and far more entertaining. And as Harry's character promises "I've seen Lord of the Rings and we're not going to end this 17 times."
Based on a book by William Steig the deliriously warped Shrek unfolds as a vividly rendered computer-animated romp with a heart as big as its hero. It also lovingly evokes the spirit of traditional fairy tales while spoofing such contemporary cultural cornerstones as The Matrix and Babe. Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) longs for peace and solitude but the likes of Goldilocks and the Three Pigs seek solace in Shrek's swamp after being expelled from a fiefdom run by the diminutive Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow). Farquaad agrees to remove the fairy-tale characters from Shrek's land should the ogre rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a tower guarded by a dragon. With the trusty but jabbering Donkey (Eddie Murphy) by his side Shrek saves Fiona. He soon falls for her but fearing rejection dares not tell her of his love. Fiona meanwhile harbors a dark secret that could ruin her impending marriage to Farquaad.
Imagine a kinder gentler version of Myers' Fat Bastard from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. That's Shrek. Myers' Scottish brogue brings out the charm in an ogre emotionally crippled by a severe lack of self-esteem. Myers restrains himself but that's because Shrek plays the straight monster to Murphy's loud-mouthed Donkey. (Yes expect plenty of ass jokes at Donkey's expense.) Murphy's a riot as he lets loose firing off one zinger after another or bursting into song. A spunky Diaz ensures that her Princess Fiona could teach Charlie's Angels a lesson or two in romance and survival skills. As Farquaad--avoid saying his name too fast when in the company of children--Lithgow is suitably Napoleonic. He also claims some of Shrek's funniest moments including a priceless Dating Game take-off with Farquaad picking out his princess via selections put forth by a stolen Magic Mirror.
Shrek immediately sets aside any notions that this is a grand Disney-ified fairy tale plump with Broadway-style tunes. The first glimpse of Shrek comes when the ogre dashes out of an outhouse having employed a page torn from a book of fairy tales for hygienic purposes. Other bodily functions--executed with childish delight--soon follow. Shrek also tickles a parent's funny bone most notably with its song parodies (pity the bluebird that sings a duet with Fiona). Yet the film's strange and twisted ways do not prevent Shrek from being an enchanting paean to the power of love and friendship. Shrek does harbor a less benevolent agenda one which playfully skewers all things Disney. Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg--who left Disney under bad terms--pokes gentle fun at the company's canon of fairy-tale characters and the sterile environment of its theme parks. Disney execs may not laugh but everyone else will.