It’s a movie about a magical person, and it stars Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, and Maggie Smith… but those aren’t the only things linking Nanny McPhee Returns to the Harry Potter series.

Like the saga of the boy wizard, the tale of the snaggle-toothed nanny has matured as the years have gone by. The first entry, from way back in 2005, was a candy-colored, whimsical, light-hearted piece of fluff. In the half-decade that’s passed, the general plot has stayed the same, but the story line has grown a bit darker. No longer is Nanny McPhee just interested in having you clean your room; now she’s teaching a life lesson about love, loss, and the grim realities of war.

Now don’t panic– it’s still a fun, family-friendly romp with plenty of slapstick, sight gags, and misbehaving children. It’s just not as fun and as family-friendly as the first.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Isabel, the mother of three children and de facto head of a rural English farm while her hubby is off fighting in World War II. When the kids’ upper-crust (though no less unruly) city cousins visit, Isabel has more than she can handle. Enter our favorite nanny this side of Mary Poppins.

Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay and produced the film) reprises her role, warts and all. The lumpy black Victorian outfit is back, along with the cane and the frazzled gray hair pulled back in a bun. She’s still the same old nanny, eager to have the children learn their five lessons, and, of course the children eventually do.

While the first movie, though, was set in a vague 19th century era accented by vibrant, clashing colors, Nanny McPhee Returns is set in the late 1930s, as World War II begins to rage in England. The palette is decidedly more muted, as is the overall tone. While there’s nothing scary or tense, there’s at least one moment when you’ll want to lean over and reassure your young child that everything will be OK, that this is a kids’ movie, and that there will be a happy ending.

Of course, there are also plenty of pratfalls (usually involving mud, ‘poo’, or both), some cute little piglets who climb trees and execute a near-flawless synchronized swimming routine, and Rhys Ifans (Hugh Grant’s naked roommate fromĀ Notting Hill) as the ‘bad guy’– Isabel’s goofy brother-in-law who’s desperately trying to get her to sell the farm, so he can cover his gambling debts.

Both the original and the sequel are rated PG, so there’s nothing too extreme to worry about, and if you’re looking for one last family movie before the kids go back to school (the next kid flick headed down the pike is the animated Alpha and Omega on September 17th), the movie you need isĀ Nanny McPhee Returns.

3/5 stars