“Nim’s Island” is a so-so live-action movie that would have been better if it were a cartoon. Animated films inspire a greater suspension of disbelief, and so we aren’t bothered by gaping plot holes or (for example) wild animals that respond to complicated commands. A guy in a cartoon asks a pelican to fly across an island and retrieve his tool belt, fine. But when it happens in a live-action film — one supposedly set in something approximating the real world — I start to ask questions.
You don’t want people asking questions during “Nim’s Island,” and the Hannah Montana crowd that the film is aimed at probably won’t. Based on Wendy Orr’s junior novel, it’s packed with wish fulfillment, girl power, broad comedy, and swashbuckling adventure. While all of these elements could have been handled better, I’m not going to quibble too much with a harmless adventure flick meant for tween girls. Then again, I’m not going to knock myself out recommending it, either. SO THERE.
Nim, played by the impossible-not-to-love Abigail Breslin, is a sparky 11-year-old who lives on a Pacific island paradise with her widowed father, Jack (Gerard Butler), a marine microbiologist. (“When [animals] have more than one cell, Jack sort of loses interest,” Nim says.) They moved to this island after Nim’s mother died, apparently because Jack couldn’t bear to face the real world anymore, though that disturbing aspect of Jack’s psychology is not addressed in the film.
No one else lives on this island, and knowledge of its existence is apparently limited to the crew of the monthly supply ship. Nim and Jack have electricity (solar-powered) and Internet access (satellite-powered), and Nim gets to learn all about nature! She’s not learning anything else, and someone who grows up never seeing another human being besides her father is bound to be emotionally screwed up, but no matter! Living on an island is fun!
Nim’s favorite books are a series of adventure novels in which author Alex Rover describes his many globetrotting escapades, and one of the film’s neat maneuvers is to show us these vignettes by way of Nim’s imagination, with her dad as Alex Rover. (Seriously: DADDY ISSUES.) Yet as it turns out, Alex Rover is really Alexandra Rover, and she’s a woman! A woman played by Jodie Foster, but still! What’s more, the real Alex Rover is an agoraphobe who hasn’t even left her San Francisco apartment in months, much less trotted the globe.
That is due to change, however, when Alex begins an e-mail correspondence with Nim while Jack is out on an expedition. A storm strands Jack where he is, Nim is all alone, and Alex wants to come help her. Meanwhile, a tourism company stumbles across the island accidentally and immediately begins plans to turn it into a resort. They show up with guests the next day, without so much as walking along the shore first themselves. Apparently the tourism industry moves very quickly (and recklessly, and without regard for international law).
What we basically have here are three main characters — Nim, Jack, and Alex — who spend the overwhelming majority of the film separated from each other. Jack’s attempts to fix his boat are boring, while Alex’s pratfall-prone shenanigans are cringe-inducing. (The list of things that Jodie Foster is good at does not include slapstick comedy. I’m surprised nobody knew this already.) Nim’s story is lively, however, and she’s the character most viewers will be interested in anyway.
Husband-and-wife directors Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin show a lot of creativity in the way they bring Alex Rover’s fictional adventures to life, and the film is generally spirited and agreeable. It’s just that 80 percent of it flies in the face of reason. How is it so easy for Alexandra to get to an island that supposedly no one knows about? And how does she do it so fast? And how is it that Nim, despite being a hardy nature girl, doesn’t know how to treat a minor scrape on her leg? And what’s with all the overly communicative wildlife? I don’t care how much you feed that damn pelican, it’s not gonna fly across the island and get your tool belt no matter how nicely you ask it. I’m just sayin’.
C+ (1 hr., 35 min.; )