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Nanny McPhee's back; cures new brat pack

"Little c, big P."

That's Nanny McPhee's standard spelling tip greeting to anyone meeting the magical, big-toothed nanny for the first time.

For many of us, this isn't the initial encounter with the timeless nanny in the dark cloak who speaks softly and carries a big stick, of course.

"Nanny McPhee Returns" is the follow-up to the 2005 original.  Like "Nanny McPhee," the sequel is based on Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" children's books that first lined shelves in the 1960s.  

And, like the first big-screen installment, the wildly imaginative script is penned by British actress/writer Emma Thompson, who also lurks behind the disappearing moles (complete with an errant ugly hair), the bulbous nose and the signature snaggletooth.

The two main differences between the first and second screen adventures is that there are five out-of-control kids to corral instead of seven.  Also, this time war rages between two sets of child siblings instead of between a single parent and unruly kiddos.

And speaking of war, the episodic soothing of young rowdy souls unfolds in something resembling World War II England, although the general store and horse-drawn carts look more like the 1920s than the '40s.

Thompson's script, holding nothing back, begins with a barnyard full of poo.  Before this enchanting adventure pulls out all magical stops and concludes in predictable fairy tale form, piglets will climb trees.  They'll also perform snout-spouting syncronized swimming water ballet.

If that's not enough weirdness, a baby elephant hops in bed with one of the kids and some of the most talented actors around take turns either chewing the scenery madly or turning in marvelous performances.

Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Crazy Heart," "The Dark Knight") does a little of both as Isabel Green, a mother of three with a husband off to war, two snooty young relatives coming to visit and a villainous brother-in-law named Phil.

More than likely instructed to do so by director Susanna White, whose experience lies mainly with TV projects, excellent actor Rhys Ifans ("Pirate Radio") is so silly as Phil that I didn't even recognize one of my favorite actors.

Maggie Smith (the "Harry Potter" franchise) takes her store owner character way over the edge as well.  But at least Dame Smith gets a chance to pull it back a little in the final reel.

On the other end of the spectrum, two-time Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes ("Schindler's List," "The English Patient") is superb and restrained in an all-too-brief scene as military official Lord Gray.

The special effects are marvelous, as is Thompson as Nanny McPhee, the mysterious task master with a golden heart.

We could all use Nanny McPhee, either on a movie screen in one of the most entertaining family films of the year, or -- need I say this? -- at home.


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