Pleasant enough, but not quite magic

Category: Nim's Island Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: April 4, 2008 | Publication: Houston Chronicle | Author: Amy Biancolli
Publication/Article Link:http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ent/movies/reviews/5652618.html

Nim's Island is a mild-mannered family movie with no huge shockers or big-time wows. Its heroine is a dewy 10-year-old girl. Its hero is a handsome swashbuckler. Its backdrop is a sunny Pacific isle. Its villains arrive on a pirate ship (in a manner of speaking).

But there's one component, just one little twist, that adds a tingle of rattled urban idiosyncrasy to this idyllic setting: the arrival of a chronically delusional obsessive-compulsive-agoraphobic germophobe from San Francisco. I'm pretty sure that's not a standard character in most childhood fables.

Her name is Alexandra Frost. Jodie Foster plays her, and if you think the presence of a stern-jawed Oscar winner lends the film some artsy cred, you're wrong. She seems to understand her purpose here: to go altogether crackers in service to the plot, which is best described as the aforesaid agoraphobe's prolonged intervention by one of her own delusions. That would be ``Alex'' Rover (Gerard Butler), the Indiana Jonesy alter-ego who ``narrates'' Alexandra's best-selling adventure yarns. He is intrepid, ill-shaven, opinionated and yummy.

Chief among his fans is young Nim (Abigail Breslin, an Oscar nominee in her own right for Little Miss Sunshine), who lives on a remote South Pacific island with her marine-biologist dad, Jack (also Butler), and abundant friendly wildlife.

Nim's life is perfect until Jack heads off alone in his sailboat in search of plankton. While he's gone, Nim gets an e-mail from Alexandra asking about the island's volcano - she wants to know if it actually bubbles with lava - and the girl injures herself rappelling down its side. The wound gets icky; she gets scared. But she can't reach her father, who's been side-swiped by a monsoon, and instead asks Alexandra to come to the rescue.

Except Nim thinks she's addressing ``Alex,'' not Alexandra. And Alexandra hasn't left her apartment in months. And her only hope is a gabby hallucination in leather half-gloves. ``Be the hero of your own life story. . . Come on a road trip with me!'' he urges. She finally complies, armed with bottles of hand sanitizer.

So it goes. There are boats, planes, a helicopter, a turtle, a sea lion, a lizard called Fred and a solicitous, plot-ministering pelican named Galileo. There are overweight tourists and invading porta-potties. There are many scenes in which Alexandra, unaccustomed to the cumulative indignities of travel, freaks out on public transit. And through it all there is the disarming and valiant Nim, who puts on a brave face but clearly misses her daddy.

Based on the children's book by Wendy Orr and Kerry Millard, the film was co-directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, who last collaborated (she as writer, he as director) on the 2005 grade-school romance Little Manhattan. That was a smaller, more winning film about a big-hearted kid on a different lonely island. Their new movie veers from Little Manhattan's prepubescent cityscape to Nim's sun-kissed paradise, but both films are dotted with brief animations and other imaginary fugues exploring the minds and hearts of children (and the agitated mental state of one neurotic grown-up).

An undefined mysticism pervades the story, including a hint of Lost-like gibbering that suggests a sentient land mass. And of course, the premise is absurd: Globe-trotting father-daughter teams don't often lay claim to abandoned tropical islands, and I can't imagine a blissed-out childhood (or adulthood) resulting when they do. But the film's chief problem isn't its fantasy elements; it's the lack of real magic in their telling. Nim's Island is a pleasant-enough jaunt for a family outing, but it never fully arrives at that ``perfect, secret world.''