Movie Review: L'Île de Nim
By Tasha Robinson, Special to the Chicago Tribune
Over the past five years, Walden Media has become a reliable purveyor of big, bright family fantasies such as "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Bridge To Terabithia," "The Water Horse," "Holes" and "Charlotte's Web." But there have been missteps along the way, including "Mister Magorium's Wonder Emporium" and "The Dark Is Rising." Walden's latest, "Nim's Island," veers perilously close to the negative side of the tally sheet. The premise, from a book by Australian author Wendy Orr, is terrific, but the execution seems designed to make all but the youngest viewers fling copies of her book at the screen in frustration.
"Little Miss Sunshine" child star Abigail Breslin stars as Nim, a smart, independent 11-year-old who lives with her microbiologist dad, Jack ("300" star Gerard Butler), on an uncharted South Pacific island. As she explains in an interminable opening monologue, she has an life most kids would envy: no school, a bevy of tame animal friends and a whole island to herself.
Then Jack is caught in a storm and lost at sea. For help, Nim turns to her favorite author, Alex Rover, an Indiana Jones type whose books about his rough-and-tumble adventures are international bestsellers. But Nim is unaware that the real Alex is Alexandra Rover, a fussy, agoraphobic San Francisco fiction writer played by Jodie Foster. Nim's e-mail pleas for rescue set off a crisis for Alexandra - she can't make it to the end of her own sidewalk to pick up her mail, yet she feels obligated to travel around the world to help.
It's a fun story, particularly in its playful, creative sense of the relationship between fiction and reality. When Nim reads the latest Alex Rover book, her room falls away and he fights his fiendish enemies next to her bed. As Alexandra fights her fears, her inner Alex Rover - also played by Butler - hangs around, mocking and urging her on by reminding her of the exploits she's invented for him and how she has failed to live up to them.
But clunky, overwrought performances make the film's "real world" less compelling than its fantasy side. It's painful to see an actor of Foster's caliber flailing, bellowing and performing clumsy Rob Schneider pratfalls. And Butler outdoes her; his silly Crocodile Dundee act as the outsized, fictional Alex makes some sense, but as Jack, he froths and chews at the scenery even more outrageously, even when that scenery is only a tiny boat and a distant horizon.
A bigger obstacle comes from the stumbling four-writer script.
Repetitive product placement is an ongoing distraction. More problematically, the characters narrate themselves, describing their intentions and feelings as if viewers can't be trusted to grasp that Nim is crying because she's sad, or that Jack is trying to fix his storm-smashed boat so he can go home to her. Which makes "Nim's Island" accessible to very small children, but older kids and parents may feel patronized, and all the explanations put brakes on what should be a fleet, exciting story.
But for all its limitations, the film still looks terrific. Flawless CGI and forays into animation keep things visually lively, and Nim's enviable life is likely to hook kids into the story early and keep them entranced.
There's a lot to like about spunky Breslin, even when she's unnecessarily recapping events or recapitulating "Home Alone" as she chases caricatured cruise-ship tourists from her island. She's a charismatic, energetic presence at the heart of the film, much as she was in "Little Miss Sunshine." But mostly, Nim's island is presented as a lush fantasy wonderland, shot in gorgeous, loving detail, from the top of its threatening volcano to the bottom of its teeming ocean.
The film touches on the important differences between fantasy and reality, but it's most appealing in its colorful fantasy elements. And true to the Walden pattern, it envisions a place kids will want to return to in their own adventure stories, long after this imperfect one is over.
MPAA rating: PG (for mild adventure action and language).
Running time: 1:36.
Starring: Abigail Breslin (Nim); Jodie Foster (Alexandra Rover); Gerard Butler (Jack/Alex Rover).
Directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin; written by Joseph Kwong, Paula Mazur, Levin and Flackett, from a novel by Wendy Orr; edited by Stuart Levy; photographed by Stuart Dryburgh; music by Patrick Doyle; production design by Barry Robison; produced by Paula Mazur. A Walden Media release.