Audience will feel embarrassed for Foster in 'Nim's Island'

Category: Nim's Island Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: April 4, 2008 | Publication: The Grand Rapids Press | Author: John Serba
Publication/Article Link:http://blog.mlive.com/grpress/2008/04/audience_will_feel_embarrassed.html

Nim Rusoe is a rather resourceful young lass.

Living on a secluded South Pacific island whose human population consists of herself and her oceanographer father, the preteen girl exhibits some self-sufficient elements of her almost-namesake, Robinson Crusoe. She relishes eating the local squirming larva delicacy, easily befriends the neighboring fauna and can take care of herself for a couple days while Dad is on the ocean conducting research.

Nim is played by Abigail Breslin, whose precocity often precedes her. But such preternatural maturity sort of works with the protagonist of "Nim's Island." She's the antithesis of the average suburban kid sipping juice boxes and playing video games. I mean, she has the wherewithal to mimic a volcanic eruption to shoo unwanted tourists from her island if she needs to.

And, yes, the need inevitably arises. She is home-schooled by her dad, Jack (Gerard Butler), who apparently has taught her self-sufficiency -- and isolationism and xenophobia. While it's refreshing to see anti-materialist characters in a children's movie, "Nim's Island" unwittingly indulges the latter traits, evoking the more cruddy, distasteful elements of "Home Alone."

Several miles out on his sailboat, Jack is drilled by a monsoon, leaving little Nim worried and alone. As he attempts to MacGyver his craft back to functionality, the island is invaded by the most grotesque tourists a caricaturist could conjure. They're bloated and obnoxious, disturbing the serenity of this secret paradise with loud music, volleyball games and porta-potties.

So what does Nim do? First, she builds slingshots to catapult horned lizards at them. Then, she feeds her pet sea lion Silky a bunch of horrible food, causing gastrointestinal distress, and thus a noxious odor proliferates the beach. Eventually, she scales the sheer face of the mountain, intending to light a fire in the dormant volcano to scare the intruders, but accidentally causes a near-eruption.

Uh huh. To be fair, "Nim's Island" intends to be whimsical, to exist in a fantasy land that closely resembles our own reality, albeit one with extraordinarily communicative animals and a screenwriter's magic wand to make everybody hunky-dory by the time the credits roll. The storybook stuff is appropriate, considering it's based on Wendy Orr's children's novel, and sometimes it's hokey-cute. But when it unleashes sea lion flatulence, the whiff of whimsy wafts away.

The film also leans heavily upon another classic crutch of comic desperation: slapstick, and from an unlikely source. Jodie Foster plays novelist Alex Rover, who pens pop-fiction starring an Indiana Jones-type adventurer. Nim is a big fan. Coincidentally, Alex tries to contact Jack while researching her new book and learns Nim is alone on the island, so she sallies forth to offer aid to what she assumes is a helpless little girl.

Problem is, Alex can't walk across her apartment without tripping or falling or banging her head or dropping things. She talks to herself regularly, or to the star of her books, who, for no discernible thematic reason, is played by Butler as a handsome hallucination. On top of this, Alex is agoraphobic and obsessive-compulsive; she has the local pharmacy deliver cartons of hand sanitizer to her front door.

So she has to face her fears all the way to the South Pacific, experiencing the usual hijinks with airport security and tiny prop planes. Foster isn't really acting so much as hyperventilating throughout the script, and we feel embarrassed for her. Alex isn't a character -- she's an irritating and unfunny bundle of neurotic tics.

To suggest "Nim's Island" intends to contrast Nim and Alex by showing us how youngsters can be sophisticated and adults infantile is giving it too much credit. By the time the third act plays out, we realize this isn't a movie about character -- it's all plot-plot-plot, and one shot full of holes at that. By delving into fairy tale cliches and ignoring the opportunity to be something substantive, it undermines the earnest and able qualities of its young heroine.

2 out of 4 stars