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.
For a few years in the '60s and '70s producer Gerry Anderson made "supermarionation" all the rage in the world of British children's television. His stop-motion puppets starred in a number of sci-fi adventure series most memorably Thunderbirds which followed the exploits of International Rescue -- a team comprised of ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons. Based out of their secret fortress on Treasure Island the Tracys (aided by lovely secret agent Lady Penelope) used their amazing rocket-powered vehicles to prevent disasters and save lives around the world. Now 40 years after Thunderbirds' TV debut Star Trek vet Jonathan Frakes has brought Anderson's characters to life on the big screen. Front and center is youngest son Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet) who dreams of the day he too can pilot one of his family's fab ships and lead missions. But first he has to prove himself to his father Jeff (Bill Paxton). That opportunity comes sooner than either expects when mysterious villain The Hood (Ben Kingsley) strands Jeff and the older Tracy boys in space and attacks Treasure Island. With only his friends Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Fermat (Soren Fulton) to help him Alan has to grow up quickly if he wants to save his family ... and the world!
It would be easy to mock several of the performances in Thunderbirds-- to chide Paxton for his earnest seriousness as Tracy patriarch Jeff to dismiss Corbet's angst-tinged eagerness as Alan to roll your eyes at Kingsley's over-the-top mystical fierceness as The Hood and to wince at Fulton and Anthony Edwards' nerdy stuttering as science whizzes Fermat and his dad Brains. But actors are only as good as their script and the one Frakes has given his cast (courtesy of screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers) is weak and clichéd at best filled with after-school-special-worthy lessons for Alan to learn. "You can't save everyone " Jeff tells his son somberly and even Tintin has a moral for her crush when he's feeling selfish and indulging in self-pity: "This is hard on all of us Alan." Talk about insight! What makes it even more frustrating is knowing that the actors are capable of much more even the kids: Both Corbet and Hudgens did well with supporting roles in Thirteen. Thunderbirds' only real bright spot is Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope. A cross between Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde and Jennifer Garner's Sydney on Alias Myles' Lady P doesn't let her pink couture wardrobe prevent her from coolly kicking ass when the situation demands it. Attended by her droll driver/man-of-all-trades Parker (Ron Cook) Lady Penelope is a fresh feisty heroine with all of the film's best lines -- and the coolest car to boot.
Frakes cut his directorial teeth on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and his first feature film was Star Trek: First Contact so he would seem like a natural choice to bring a cult sci-fi TV show to the big screen. Unfortunately while he does an admirable job re-creating (and improving on) the original Thunderbirds' mod sets cool ships and special effects (which are fine if a bit more TV-sized than summer blockbustery) Frakes can't seem to decide who his audience is. If he was aiming at grown-ups who remember the show fondly from their own childhood he should have embraced the source material's campiness (à la Starsky and Hutch) rather than restricting it to the Tracys' plastic Barbie-like furniture and Lady P's bouffant hairdo. If on the other hand Frakes was hoping to entertain today's kids he should have really reinvented the show for a 21st-century world (à la Stephen Hopkins'1998 Lost in Space) rather than clinging to the '60s references As it is he's stuck somewhere in the middle leaving adults bored during the kids-on-an-adventure bits and children mystified by the handful of jokes aimed at their parents.