Wendy Orr wrote a story when she was nine years old.
Decades later it turned into her 2002 novel Nim’s Island, a slim and fanciful piece of work that touches on a few serious issues but never long enough to distract from the silly hijinks of her heroine and her animal friends on the island. The movie version ups the silliness quotient considerably, which does no one any favors. Abigail Breslin stars as 11-year-old Nim Rusoe, who lives on a tropical island in the South Pacific with her marine biologist dad Jack (played by a clean-shaven and bespectacled Gerard Butler, with a shaky American accent), who works to keep their home from being discovered by other people.
One day when Jack’s away looking for zooplankton, Nim is astonished to see her dad’s e-mail account receive a science query from her favorite adventure novelist, Alex Rover. She starts corresponding with the author, imagining Alex to be like the main character in the books, a swashbuckling hero (played by a stubble-chinned Butler, dressed like Indiana Jones and using his native Scottish accent) who’s never short of confidence or solutions. She doesn’t know that the real Alex Rover (Jodie Foster) is an obsessive-compulsive, highly phobic woman who hasn’t left her San Francisco apartment in four months. Similarly, Alex doesn’t know that her e-mail correspondent is a little girl until Jack is shipwrecked and left adrift far away from the island, and Nim calls on her for help. Urged on by her fictional alter ego – with whom the author has long, involved conversations – Alex goes off on a rescue mission.
Uh, remember when I reviewed Jodie Foster’s last movie? (“Duck and Cover,” Sept. 12, 2007.) I believe I used the phrase “girlfriend needs to chill” when referring to her recent performances. Yeah, never mind. Broad slapstick comedy simply isn’t what this actress was put on earth to do, and even though Foster is very game for dancing badly, freaking out at germs, and being splashed with water and hit in the face with all manner of vegetation, she still overdoes things. We can’t laugh because we’re so keenly aware that this is an overly tight performer who’s willing herself to loosen up rather than simply doing it.
It’s not just her, though. Nobody comes off well here, except possibly Butler when he’s playing the fictional Alex. That’s because the directing team of Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin doesn’t have control of the tone of this piece. The material lends itself to action and serious family drama as well as slapstick, and the filmmakers repeatedly mishandle this, doing things like cutting away to cute shots of Nim’s animal friends while she’s fretting over her dad’s whereabouts. Nim’s Island didn’t have to be a great comedy and a great kiddie action flick all at once. We would have settled for just one of those things. We don’t get either of them.
Starring Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster, and Gerard Butler. Directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. Written by Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin, Joseph Kwong, and Paula Mazur, based on Wendy Orr’s book. Rated PG.