There's a difference between a family movie and a children's movie. A family movie can be enjoyed by one and all, while a children's movie will only appeal to the very young. Nim's Island is an example of the second category, and while I'm not saying there's no need for children's movies, there's no reason that such a movie needs to be this bland and toothless. The early moments of the film hint and wonder and whimsy, only to betray its own promise, and sink into a pit of mediocrity and respectable adult actors overacting. Directors and co-writers Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (who previously teamed up for the underseen coming of age preteen comedy, Little Manhattan) give us very little to get excited about here.
The title character is a 10-year-old girl (Abigail Breslin) who lives on a mostly uncharted tropical island with her scientist father, Jack Rusoe (Gerard Butler), and her various animal friends who provide plenty of visual antics and the occasional fart joke for kids to laugh at. Little Nim learns everything from her father and the books that are delivered to her by a supply ship that visits the island once a month with food and other necessities. Early on in the story, Jack is lost at sea in a storm. Nim is on her own for the first time in her life, since her mother died when Nim was very young, thereby fulfilling the unwritten law that every lead child character in a family and/or children's movie must come from a single parent home. Afraid for her dad's safety, and worried when strange invaders (tourists from a cruise ship) start arriving on the island shore, Nim needs to turn to someone for help. The only person she can think of is Alex Rover, an Indiana Jones-style adventurer who stars in a series of her favorite novels. When her dad's computer starts receiving e-mails from an "Alex Rover" asking about information on volcanos, she assumes it's the character from the stories, and asks for his help. Little does she realize that the person she's talking to is Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), the author of the adventure tales she so admires. Alexandra is very different from the hero in her stories, as she's a complete paranoid case, afraid to set foot outside of her house to even get the mail. When Alexandra reads about Nim's current situation, she grows increasingly concerned, and eventually decides she must venture outside of her house for the first time in months in order to help her young fan.
The opening moments of Nim's Island have a certain imagination to them that made me smile. I liked the opening sequences that act out the story of how Nim and her father came to the island using storybook-like images come to life through stop motion animation. There's also a clever scene early on when she is reading an Alex Rover novel, and the bedroom around her disappears, only to have it be replaced with the scene from the book. Young Nim is still in her bed, reading, but her bed is now in the middle of a vast desert, and we see what she is reading being acted out around her. The character of Alex Rover is portrayed in physical form by Gerard Butler in a dual role. The movie is bizarre in the way it handles the character, as even though he is a fictional character, he can seemingly be seen by and interact with anyone he chooses. He appears before Nim a couple times, but he more frequently appears before his creator, Alexandra, trying to coax her out of her house and live life to the fullest. He's the one who inspires Alexandra to take a chance and seek out this girl sending her e-mails about her current situation. It's a cute idea, but the movie doesn't do enough with it. Alex Rover may have the grizzled look of Indiana Jones, but he spends almost his entire screen time comically bickering with his creator, as if they were an obnoxious married couple in a sitcom. I was disappointed. I wanted to see more of the character's adventures, not him arguing with the woman who writes his stories.
There's a curious lack of adventure and excitement behind the entire enterprise, which was surprising to me, given the fact that it is being marketed as an adventure tale for kids. There is no danger, no real sense of tension, and the closest thing the movie ever gets to a villain are some obnoxious tourists who show up from a cruise ship, and briefly try to turn the island into a tacky resort. Because we never feel like Nim is in any real danger, and because the movie constantly reminds us that her father is okay and trying to get back to her, it never creates the proper mood. We don't care if Alexandra reaches the island or not, because the girl she's trying to find isn't in any danger anyway, unless you consider a scraped knee (the worst thing that happens to Nim) a cause to travel half-way around the world. Besides, Nim often comes across as a selfish and somewhat spoiled child who is willing to manipulate others to get what she wants. She claims to love her animal friends, but I had to wonder what was going through the minds of the lizards she loads into catapults and launches at the obnoxious tourists in order to scare them away. I kept on waiting for the lizards to gang up on her and extract their revenge, but the scene never comes. I have admired Abigail Breslin in many films, and I'm sure I will again. But here, she's working with an unlikable character, and never quite gains our support.
The biggest performance miscalculation by far comes from Jodie Foster, who has the right idea in taking a break from the recent dark thrillers she's been doing like Flightplan and The Brave One, but approaches the material in completely the wrong manner. Her portrayal of Alexandra doesn't lead us to believe she is merely a paranoid germophobic, but also possibly insane. Foster bugs out her eyes, flails her arms, and screams at the top of her lungs every chance she gets, turning her character into a screaming harpy who causes our spirits to sink every time she walks on screen. I think I can understand what Foster was trying to do. She knew she was doing a kid's movie, so she decided to cut loose. I'm sure she had a lot of fun on the set. But someone should have really told her to reign it in a little. Given how broadly she plays the character, I would have been happy to see the men in white coats come and take her away. As for Gerard Butler, he's given very little to do in both of his roles. As Nim's father, he spends a good part of the movie talking to a pelican that is sometimes an animatronic puppet, and sometimes a very fake looking CG puppet. Both attempts to bring the creature to life look about as convincing as the animatronics you find on the "Jungle Cruise" ride at Disneyland.
Because of its lack of imagination, adventure, anything resembling a conflict, and likable characters, Nim's Island quickly becomes a chore to sit through for anyone but the youngest and most undiscriminating of viewers. I'm positive the movie will have its supporters, as it contains nothing offensive, despite the PG-rating. Even the film's sole fart joke is as tame as they come. For me, that's just the problem. The movie plays it too safe and aims too low. When the movie arrives at its far too tidy and pat happy ending, we don't feel like the characters earned it, because they barely had to work for it. Sitting through this movie often feels like a much bigger test than anything the characters have to go through.
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