Thursday, April 10, 2008

Nim's Island: Hero worship

Nim's Island (2008) • View trailer for Nim's Island
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild fantasy peril
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.10.08
Buy DVD: Nim's Island • Buy Blu-Ray: Nim's Island [Blu-ray]

Living alone on an uncharted island, surrounded by unusually communicative animal friends, used to be enough fancy for any kid.

Today's child, however, has loftier ambitions: being the namesake of a hitherto undiscovered species of micro-organism.
Most little girls would spend their free time chatting with friends or hanging
out at the nearest mall; Nim (Abigail Breslin) enjoys dancing with Selkie, her
400-pound pet sea lion. Our young heroine's tropical existence is the stuff of
dreams ... that is, until Mother Nature unleashes a rather nasty nightmare.

But, then, Nim is no ordinary little girl.

She's the remarkably resourceful 11-year-old heroine of Wendy Orr's charming novel, which has made an equally engaging leap to the big screen under the capable hands of husband-and-wife directing team Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett. The resulting film is equal parts Swiss Family Robinson and A Little Princess, with a clever side story involving a best-selling author whose brawny, macho series hero couldn't be less like his creator.

Nim's Island represents another hit for Walden Media, which has produced an impressive string of films based on popular children's books, from Holes and Hoot to Charlotte's Web and Bridge to Terabithia. All these movies have been marked by intelligent scripts, a captivating and often whimsical directorial touch and — most important — respect for the source material.

Nim's Island is no different. The cast chews enthusiastically into these larger- than-life characters, while remaining grounded just enough to allow easy audience identification.

Levin and Flackett also maintain a stylized atmosphere, with occasional touches of old-fashioned animation, to convey the sense that this adventure unfolds precisely the way its young protagonist might have put words to paper herself.

Our feisty heroine (Abigail Breslin) lives with her scientist father, Jack (Gerard Butler), on an island known to nobody, and that's the way they like it.

They want for nothing; solar panels provide electricity, computers give contact with the outside world, and occasional supply ships bring the hard goods that they can't grow or fabricate themselves.

The most recent carton includes the newest book detailing the adventures of Nim's favorite literary hero: Alex Rover, the world's greatest adventurer (a delightfully camped-up, kid-oriented riff on Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt).

While devouring the cliff-hanging chapters, Nim imagines herself into the action; the film obligingly responds with an ingenious battle between Rover and some baddies on faraway desert sands, with the fisticuffs taking place on either side of the little girl's bed.

Right there, we know Levin and Flackett have just the right touch for this story.

Jack, ever the questing marine biologist, must visit a nearby reef; he'd normally take his daughter, but she insists on remaining home to care for one of her many exotic animal pets. Jack reluctantly leaves her behind, promising to return in two days.


Reclusive, fainthearted writer Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), the actual author hiding behind the nom de hero of Alex, is blocked over the details of her next fictional thriller. Needing information on volcanos, she hits the Web and comes across one of Jack's National Geographic articles; she then sends an e-mail query.

This is received by Nim, who cannot believe she's hearing from her favorite writer. The subsequent correspondence proceeds along professional lines, with neither party fully aware of the other's identify — Alexandra assumes that Nim is one of Jack's assistants — until an unexpected typhoon wrecks Jack's boat and leaves his stranded at sea ... well beyond the two-day limit of Nim's patience.

Suddenly, with nobody else to tell, Nim becomes any other frightened little girl, and pleads for help from the person she believes is Alex Rover, master of derring-do.

Alexandra, aghast in front of her computer, can't imagine being of any use; she can't even leave the house to collect her own mail. But when bullied by her own inner muse — a personification of Alex Rover, also played by Butler — she gradually works up the courage to try.

But even if she succeeds in getting on a plane, how could she possibly find Nim's island and arrive on time?

Foster is hilarious as the agoraphobic Alexandra: all twitches, jitters and shakes over anything remotely outside her comfort zone ... and of course the decision to help Nim falls way beyond that zone.

Foster has many comic moments, but the best comes when she merely stands just inside the open front door of her San Francisco apartment, eyes wide with terror as she contemplates taking the next step.

Her floppy, all-but-concealing hat is a nice touch.

Butler has a great deal of fun with his two roles, which aren't all that distinct, and with good reason: Every child fancies a parent with the best qualities of a beloved fictional hero. And, truth be told, Jack is almost as brave and resourceful as Alex Rover, which is a good thing. When adrift at sea and surrounded by hungry sharks — also a droll touch — a guy's gotta keep his wits about him, if he's to survive.

Breslin, always the consummate actress, moves easily from carefree adolescent to worried daughter. The story gives her plenty of time to be a fun-loving kid, whether swimming with Selkie, an utterly adorable (and rather large) sea lion, or chatting with Fred, a foot-long bearded dragon with considerable personality. (Fred and a pelican dubbed Galileo get some of their anthropomorphized characteristics thanks to computer enhancement; you've never seen a lizard with such a gleefully wicked grin.)

But when the situation turns serious, so does Breslin; we can't help wincing when an expedition to the island's dormant volcano leaves the little girl with a nasty scrape on one leg. And her eventual collapse — as fears relating to her father's fate finally sink in — is genuinely heartbreaking.

Some of the movie's affectations aren't entirely successful. All three of these characters spend way too much time talking to themselves — or, in Alexandra's case, talking to her fantasy alter-ego — and that sometimes feels contrived. I understand the reason behind it; we need to get into these folks' heads, the same way a reader can peer into their minds on a book's printed page.

But many of these inner thoughts could be conveyed purely by emoting; Foster, in particular, is much too good an actress to require so much commentary while behaving according to her character's panicky tendencies.

A temporary "invasion" by cruise ship passengers also feels a bit like a time-filler, although the sequence does give Nim a chance to show her resourceful desire to protect the privacy of her island. Alas, the people on the ship are rather too burlesque, and their overly silly behavior threatens the film's carefully crafted tone.

But these are minor complaints, and they certainly don't ruin the story's kid-oriented sense of wonder. Mostly, too, I'm delighted to enjoy another film with a young girl as a heroine; between this and Because of Winn-Dixie, Charlotte's Web and Bridge to Terabithia, Walden Media is doing an excellent job of balancing the gender scales.

Little girls spent decades having to endure ubiquitous boy heroes in adventures of this type; it's about time the gals got their licks in.

Mostly, though, Nim's Island is a treat because of its ability to cater to all ages. Young viewers will enjoy the wish fulfillment and fantasy touches, while their parents will appreciate the gently self-mocking comic touches and virtuous behavior of all concerned ... and the very important lessons about rising to a challenge, and learning to rely on your own abilities.

I also respect the story's refreshing refusal to turn its adults into idiots, as a way of making Nim look smarter. She — and the movie itself — don't need such manipulative touches.

I fully expect Nim's Island to become a popular home library DVD purchase after a healthy theatrical run. It deserves both.

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