LITTLE ROCK Harmless but surprisingly bland, Nim's Island isn't the sparkling family adventure tale one might expect from the cast, especially considering that Jodie Foster is reputed to beextremely picky about what roles she takes.
Here she's Alexandra Rover, an agoraphobic writer of swashbuckling adventure stories featuring an Indiana Jones knockoff she has imaginatively named Alex Rover (Gerard Butler). While Alexandra can't step outside her San Francisco apartment to fetch her mail, her male alter ego traipses across the desert sands, whupping up on his Arab adversaries with his hands tied while blindfolded.
One of the biggest fans of these stories happens to be a girl named Nim (Abigail Breslin), who in time will cause us to wonder if it's actually short for Nimrod, and not becauseshe's such a great hunter. Something tragic has happened to her mother, so Nim lives on a deserted island in the South Pacific with her obviously deranged father Jack (also played by Gerard Butler), a marine biologist who communicates to the rest of the world through e-mail. No one is allowed to come ashore, even to deliver provisions and - according to National Geographic - Jack refuses to divulge to anyone the exact location of the island. Apparently he wants to be left alone to do his little experiments. Heh heh heh. (Cue love theme to The Blue Lagoon.)
Nim believes her mother was swallowed by a whale and that she can talk to the various animals that provide her with companionship after her father goes off on a three-hour tour (actuallytwo-day expedition) to find a previously undiscovered species of plankton he can name after his beloved daughter. (There is an awful lot to do with namegiving embedded in this movie that we might explore had we more time and space: At one point, Alexandra, who in some respects is also Alex, who is also Jack, wonders aloud what kind of name is Nim. Nim calls her lizard friend Fred, which is sort of an ironic reaction to the practice of giving animals clever names. Just throwing it out, in case someone has a thesis due and needs a topic.)
While he's away, writer Alexandra, trying to work her way out of a blocked passage, becomes curious about volcano interiors. Having found Jack's article "Living in the Shadow of a Volcano" on the Internet, she e-mails him with a query. Nim, having been instructed to automatically reply to her father's e-mail, takes Alexandra - who signs herself Alex - for thewriter's creation. Wow, thinks the smartest 11-year-old girl on the planet, my favorite fictional character is e-mailing my dad! Cool beans!
In short order, a storm blows up and disables Jack's boat and Nim injures herself while doing field work at Alexandra's behest. As they exchange e-mails, it slowly dawns on Alexandra that she's corresponding with an 11-year-old, all alone on the other side of the world, whose paranoid reclusive father is lostat sea. What would Alex Rider do?
Maybe the best thing about the movie is how it almost organizes itself around the idea of the computer as a lifeline stretched thin. Things really don't begin to go off the rails until other people begin to show up on the island - at first a rather benign-appearing cruise ship full of Aussie tourists (depicted as unflatteringly as American excursionists typically are) and ultimately Alexandra herself.
Nim's Island is supposed to be a fantasy adventure, but inthe end it winds up being neither particularly fantastic nor adventurous. The ending feels peculiar and as unearned as it is predictable. While it has moments - kids will like the computer-generated animals and the irascible (if dangerously stupid) Nim - adults are likely to feel bad about Foster's twitch-andshriek performance. She's supposed to "relearn" how to be courageous over the course of her adventure (which primarily involves air travel), but in the end she only exchanges one sort of splendid isolation for another.
MovieStyle, Pages 37, 44 on 04/04/2008