Adapted from Wendy Orr’s same-named children’s novel, Nim’s Island tells the story of 11-year-old Nim (Abigail Breslin, Oscar-nominated for Little Miss Sunshine), a precocious girl who lives alone on a remote island in the South Pacific with her widowed, marine biologist father, Jack Rusoe (Gerard Butler, of 300). The lack of human companionship doesn’t bother them, though — Nim plays with and talks to her pet lizard and sea lion, and enthusiastically devours a once-a-month shipment of adventure novels featuring a swashbuckling, fedora-sporting character named Alex Rover.
But when a storm unexpectedly sweeps her father out to sea, Nim finds herself truly alone, and scared. A series of research email queries from the real-life author Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), in actuality an agoraphobic recluse living in San Francisco, awakens, to degrees, adventurous and heroic impulses in both parties. As Nim looks to protect her island home from the intrusive tourism inroads of Buccaneer Cruise Lines — a company peddling virginal beach expeditions to their loud, gawking clientele — Alexandra faces up to her own considerable fears, packs a suitcase full of Progresso soup and Purell hand sanitizer, and embarks on a far-flung voyage to help her young fan.
More intimately scaled than a lot of other recent children’s book adaptations, the sweet-natured and light-hearted Nim’s Island nonetheless achieves a nice hold over its audience, courtesy in no small part to Barry Robison’s superb production design. Co-directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (Little Manhattan), the movie is pitched just a little to the left of naturalistic but it’s never so outlandish as to come off as completely unrealistic, as long as one is prepared to make a few acquiescences — mostly with regards to the interacting-with-animals bits.
The obvious touchstone here is Disney’s 1960 family adventure classic Swiss Family Robinson, a sick-day staple for many a kid courtesy of its theatrical reissue and subsequent VHS peddling in the 1980s. (There are a few brief allusions to that movie, and Nim and her father’s last name, Rusoe, is another nod of homage, to Daniel Defoe’s castaway tale Robinson Crusoe.) Many other movies, though — from Matilda and Zathura to Jumanji and even The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep — share the same sort of fantastical, flight-of-fancy imagination that powers this movie. While Nim’s Island is in the end far less explicitly effects-driven than some of those films, it does open and close with hand-crafted credit sequences that frames this tale as a metaphorical yarn as much as anything else.
As for the performances, Breslin is suitably bright-eyed, and energetic. Butler, meanwhile, has great fun portraying both Jack and the more rugged, roguish Alex, who appears both in Nim’s imagination during her reading and in several spirited arguments with Alexandra, who is the antithesis of the best-selling character of her own creation. The movie also benefits greatly from a pitch-perfect manic turn by Foster, who knows how to take formulaic bits of slapstick and uptight unease and make them ring amusingly true.
Nim’s Island isn’t without a few moments of over-familiarity, and in some ways it’s actually demure when compared to a lot of other movies aimed these days chiefly at kids — which may be a bit of a strike for those raised on the Harry Potter films and The Chronicles of Narnia. Its greatest success, though, is the manner in which it taps into the pleasurable feeling of awakened imagination that surges during adolescence. Rekindling fond memories of childhood is never a bad thing. For the full review, from Reelz, click here. (Fox Walden, PG, 94 minutes)