Married writers-directors Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levitt made a more-than-auspicious debut in 2005 with "Little Manhattan
," a woefully overlooked treasure of a movie that was unceremoniously dumped into a handful of theaters by distributor 20th Century Fox and left to die as they concentrated their energy on putting the horridly stupid "Cheaper by the Dozen 2
" on 3,000-plus screens. "Little Manhattan
" remains one of the most honest and magical family films of the last decade, something that Flackett's and Levitt's sophomore effort, "Nim's Island," cannot attest to. Despite its heart being in the right place, their latest effort is a strikingly far-fetched and cloying picture that tries way too hard to be alternately juvenile and bittersweet. Younger kids might be pleased with it, but the story is sappy, ham-fisted and ultimately quite aimless.
Nim Rusoe (Abigail Breslin) has lived her whole life on a remote South Pacific island with widowed scientist father Jack (Gerard Butler) and a gaggle of wildlife pets. When he goes out to sea on a planned two-day expedition and does not return, Nim fears for his safety. Feeling threatened herself when she has reason to believe that the ship involved in her mother's death, named The Buccaneer
, is arriving to take over the island in a matter of days, Nim begins corresponding via e-mail with Alex Rover, the adventurer from her favorite book series. She wants Alex to come save her, but what she doesn't realize is that Alex is actually Alexandra (Jodie Foster), an agoraphobic writer in San Francisco who has none of the courage that her fictional male counterpart has. Taking the first step toward facing the world outside her door, Alexandra leaves her home and begins a whirlwind voyage to find Nim.
Based on the novel by Wendy Orr, "Nim's Island" is a tough pill to swallow, even if it is to be strictly taken as a fantasy. Nim, who has been selfishly cut off from face-to-face human contact by a father happy to keep her isolated in her life, must be awfully dense not to realize that Alex Rover isn't a real person, and someone had to have written the tales she enjoys reading so much. In addition, she apparently has superhuman strength (she manages to move large boulders in one scene) and, despite being an animal lover, thinks nothing of risking the lives of the lizard population when she cruelly catapults them through the air to satisfy her own needs. Alexandra, meanwhile, is portrayed not only as a woman suffering from agoraphobia, but other mental illnesses; how else to explain her hallucinations and the full conversations she has with Alex, played by Gerard Butler in a dual role?
The journey Alexandra takes to get to Nim, complete with various strangers who agree to escort her by boat and plane, no questions asked, could have been fraught with comedic possibilities, but the material isn't witty or creative enough to live up to them. By the time Alexandra finally reaches Nim, the film has run out of ideas and has nowhere in particular for these two characters to go. Without giving the ending away, the wrap-up is implausibly tidy and suggests that Alexandra has once again chosen a life where she doesn't have to face a world outside of the box she creates for herself. What kind of a message is that?
Taking a page from Tom Hanks in 2000's "Cast Away
," Abigail Breslin (2008's "Definitely, Maybe
") spends most of her screen time deserted alone on an island, interacting with sea lions and lizards in lieu of Wilson the volleyball. Breslin's talent is undeniable, but her role as Nim doesn't give her much to do. Her performance is workmanlike, but admittedly bland. As Alexandra, Jodie Foster (2007's "The Brave One
") takes a temporary vacation from the dark dramas she's known for in order to yuk it up and make something that her children can actually watch. More power to her, but Foster's pleas for laughs are only spottily amusing. As Jack/Alex Rover, Gerard Butler (2007's "P.S. I Love You
") acts beneath his abilities while essaying two charactersone real, one imaginarywho are equally dull.
"Nim's Island" is a forcefully whimsical fluff piece. It isn't necessarily painful to watchJodie Foster does have fun as the socially uncomfortable Alexandra, and there's a nicely played subplot involving a young vacationing boy, Edmund (Maddison Joyce), who comes into contact with Nimbut it is so contrived that it really starts to wear on one's patience. As an aside, isn't it about time we put the kabosh on movie characters who read aloud their e-mails? Who does that? "Nim's Island" will be inoffensive for younger audiences, but it's not nearly as smart and charming as it thinks it is, or should be.