Monday, April 07, 2008

Nim’s Island / *** (PG)

Nim Rusoe: Abigail Breslin
Alexandra Rover: Jodie Foster
Jack Rusoe/Alex Rover: Gerard Butler

20th Century Fox and Walden Media present a film directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. Written by Joseph Kwong & Paula Mazur and Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin. Based on the novel by Wendy Orr. Running time: 95 min. Rated PG (for mild adventure action and brief language).

“Nim’s Island” is the story of two females who both need something. One is a 10-year-old girl who lives with her marine biologist father and some clever animals on a secluded island. The other is a writer who lives secluded in her San Fransisco apartment writing novels about a world-renowned adventurer. The girl needs a parental figure after her father becomes lost at sea. The novelist needs to free herself of the fear of… everything. Their lives come together over the course of four days through a series of unlikely but entertaining events. Each finds what they need, but not in the way they expect.

Both lives are fueled by stories. Nim’s begins with the story of her mother, a strange kid’s fantasy about how when she was sailing the seas studying whales a pirate ship came upon her and scared the whale she was watching into swallowing her. This story is narrated by Nim (Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”) and depicted in a children’s book style animation, reflecting the illustrations of Kerry Millard in Wendy Orr’s original book. It is a child’s version of the truth, but since the most of “Nim’s Island” is told from a ten year old’s point of view, no realistic version of her mother’s fate is ever offered. It is the film’s dedication to this child’s-eye view of the world that gives it much of its energy and originality.

Nim’s current story fetish, however, are the adventure stories of Alex Rover, an Indiana-Jones-type figure who continuously finds himself in life-threatening situations. Rover’s adventures are published as if Rover himself has written them as a series of unbelieveable memoirs. Of course, a ten year old will believe any adventures of such a nature, especially Nim, since she lives a fairly adventurous life of her own on her island. Nim sees Rover as a connection to the outside world she has never been a part of. When Nim’s father goes missing, she decides Rover is the only person who can save him.

What Nim doesn’t realize is that Alex Rover is actually Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster, “The Brave One”), the aforementioned neorotic writer who can’t even bring herself to walk out of her apartment far enough to grab the mail. For Alexandra, Rover is an outlet to escape her own world of fear.

It is always interesting to see a well-established actor venture into unexplored territory. Foster is not known for her comedic work and certainly hasn’t strayed far into family-oriented entertainment before. But she’s a good actress and knows how to take risks. Her choices don’t always work here. Her agrophobia is exhibited much more physically than psychologically, and therefore flies way over the top, like when she has to fight herself out of the doorway of her apartment to get in a cab. But you can tell she is having good time acting goofy, and that energy carries her performance into later scenes that require a little more than just physical humor.

Nim’s father is less of a developed character and more of a prop that sets events into motion when he becomes lost at sea, but tough guy Gerard Butler (“300”) does a good job balancing his flightiness with a sesitivity that makes him a good parent. An interesting point is that Butler also portrays Alex Rover in the fantasies Nim imagines while reading his adventures and in Alexandra’s own conversations with her alter ego. This begs the question, why would Nim and Alexandra envision Alexandra’s creation as the exact same man? A vaugue explanation is offered by the end of the film, as both women appear to see Alex as their idea of a perfect man.

“Nim’s Island” never reaches the level of a great family film that appeals to children but also offers a great deal for adults to enjoy. It is aimed exclusively at the juvenile audience, with a mindset posed more toward adventure than logic. There is a sequence involving a cruise ship captain (Michael Carmen, “Quigley Down Under”) who decides Nim’s island—an appearantly uncharted and uninhabited place of unknown dangers—is the perfect place for a shore excursion. I’m not sure why any cruise guests but the most adventurous would want to disembark on this jungle island with a giant volcano in the middle of it. Most of the guests seem to be the types to play things safe and stay aboard for the lunch buffet specials. But the Austrailian cast is able to embue their vacation ideals with the spirit found in one of the great vacation films “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” from the French comedy master Jacques Tati, so the sequence is not a total failure.

I enjoyed the free-spirited nature of this film, although in some ways it seems to be slightly underbaked. But I can see how children will find this to be a memerable experience. I can imagine kids going home and redecorating their tree houses into some sort of science lab where their marine biologist fathers could do their work while they swung from the branches with their imaginary lizard friends, whom they would launch from slingshots at any unwanted cruiseline guests. And thinking about that makes me yearn to dip my finger in the unbaked cookie dough. Wasn’t it always better before it was baked anyway?

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