April 10, 2008

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Nim’s Island (PG)
A young girl narrates the story that will likely become the basis of her therapy for abandonment issues in Nim’s Island, an occasionally swashbuckling but frequently draggy kidventure.

Nim (Abigail Breslin) is the daughter of a scientist named Jack (Gerard Butler) and a mother who was either eaten by a whale or ran off on a cruise ship when Nim was but a baby. Now Nim and her dad live on an island in the middle of the South Pacific at a location they keep hidden from the world so they can enjoy the solitude and pristine nature of their little chunk of paradise (well, paradise with an active volcano in the middle of it). Nim receives her news of the world via the Internet and from monthly visits from a supply ship, which brings things such as books by Nim’s favorite author, Alex Rover, a world-traveling adventurer who has the same lust for new experiences and grand excitement that Nim does.

In reality, however, the brave Indiana-Jones-ish Alex Rover (also Gerard Butler) is only a figment of the imagination of Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), an agoraphobic, germphobic bundle of neuroses who is the author of those great adventure tales. Leaving aside for a moment the ethics of writing a first-person “memoir” for a person who is your exact opposite, right down to being the opposite gender, Alexandra has created quite the posh shut-in existence, getting her exercise on a treadmill and doing all her research online from inside her lovely San Francisco home. It’s over the Internet that she first meets Nim. She sends Jack an e-mail full of questions on the finer points of volcanoes and it’s answered by Nim, who informs “Alex” that Jack’s away but she’ll try to help out. Jack has gone on a three-day trip looking for a new protozoa species but a storm and equipment failures have left Nim alone and with no news of him for several days. Little by little, Nim lets it slip that she’s just a kid and Alexandra is horrified to learn that Nim is now alone, with no human assistance to turn to, on a remote island. Despite her fears, Alexandra, with a little prodding from Alex Rover, decides to head out to find and help Nim.

In the spirit of all plucky movie heroines, Nim is quite capable on her own, managing to feed herself, keep herself safe and talk herself out of fear — all with a bit of help from her animal friends including a pelican, a seal and a lizard. That these animals are BFFs with Nim and appear to understand things like how to fart on command or fetch tools does strain the likeability of this bit of cuteness. Particularly in a scene where Nim must protect her island from intruders (sun-baked Australian cruise-goers), the anthropomorphism goes from “aw” to “ugh” pretty quickly. And when it isn’t splashing cuteness in your face with the animals, Nim’s Island is desperately trying to wring out a tear by “oh, woe is Nim”-ing over the idea of a little girl never seeing her dad again. (Though, since Lion King, when was the last time a movie got us really invested in a parental figure only to kill them off?) The movie spends a lot of time trying to get the audience to either bawl its eyes out or roll on the floor with laughter when really just moving the story along with a few chuckles and an occasionally sober moment would have been much better.

Despite the demands of precociousness, Breslin is essentially a good fit for the material. She’s believable swinging through the trees and climbing a mountain. And Foster is a solid and entertaining ’fraidy cat. While her discussions with her imaginary friend played by Butler are far too many, she does the best that she can with them, presenting believable-enough fear without playing it too grownup for the kids in the audience. C+

Rate PG for mild adventure action and brief language. Directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin and written by Joseph Kwong, Paula Mazur, Mark Levin and Flackett (from the novel by Wendy Orr), Nim’s Island is an hour and 36 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Fox Walden.