It's becoming painfully obvious that modern moviemakers know nothing about making a true family film. Not just a movie aimed at a certain unsullied demographic, but an effort that sparks the imagination of anyone from ages eight to eighty. The latest attempt at finding the right formula is the undeniably uneven Nim's Island. As a work of whimsy and wonder, it offers too many unexplainable elements. We never fully grasp the reality - or unreality - of the situations we see. On the other hand, there are parts and performances here that illustrate the direction such a project could take, especially when not guided by studio pressures or focus group interference.
On a magical South Pacific atoll, Nim Rusoe and her oceanographer father Jack lead an idealized, tranquil life. Keeping in touch with civilization via satellite phones, the Internet, and a monthly supply boat, he studies plankton/protozoa while she plays with her animal pals. Nim is also a voracious reader, and her favorite book series centers on a macho adventurer named Alex Rover. One day, an email arrives asking for information on a local volcano. It appears to be from Rover himself. Nim responds, but doesn't know that she's really 'talking' to Alexandra Rover, author of the wildly successful tomes. Living in San Francisco as a literal hermit, the agoraphobic scribe wants to avoid the real world as much as possible. But when Jack goes missing at sea, and a cruise ship arrives, Nim grows nervous. She asks for Alex Rover's help. Thus begins a journey of self-discovery for both our anxious author and the little girl she is determined to save.
There are two amazing elements to Nim's Island, a pair of performers that literally lift the movie out of its ditzy doldrums every time they threaten to overwhelm the spectacle. As an Oscar nominee for her work in Little Miss Sunshine, Abigail Breslin does her best to infuse the quixotic nature of the narrative with fun and familiarity. As a character who literally talks to sea lions and lizards, who can craft a tasty treat out of vegetables and meal worms, who easily survives monsoons but panics the minute she sees other humans, it's a hard act to sell. Our spunky little lead is supposed to be viewed as heroic and helpless, capable on the outside but frightfully needy within. Breslin brings all this to her work, and it's one of the reasons we connect with the otherwise cracked events playing out.
The other shining star is two time Academy award winner Jodie Foster. Following up her magnificent turn in last year's The Brave One, this comic about-face verifies why she remains one of our best modern actresses. Sure, her skittish psycho routine seems a bit forced at first, but that's just because we don't truly understand Alexandra Rover's plight. Foster finds the right beats so often, building a character of such subtle complexity that we forgive the blatant slapstick and pratfall foolishness. By the last act, when the danger turns from imaginary to very, very real, Foster's face illustrates all we need to know. While some may consider it over the top, this is one performance that perfectly matches the tone attempted here.
Unfortunately, novice filmmakers Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin confuse crazy quilt culturalism with fantasy, Apparently, juxtaposing Englishmen, Americans, Aussies, Islanders, and any other eccentric ethnicity one can muster is supposed to signify something otherworldly. All it really does is mandate a set of subtitles. Similarly, there's a reliance on cartoonish imagery and obvious CGI (especially a pelican named Galileo) that breaks the magical mood the pair strives for. Sometimes, they get things just right. The opening credits that explain what happens to Nim's mother are novel and well done. But the entire cruise ship episode stinks of a poorly produced pilot for a Downunder sitcom. When combined with the scattered script, which sees too many leaps in logic, even for an imaginary adventure, we get the distinct impression that there is a better version of this material to be had. Nothing Flackett or Levin do inspires the kind of recognition that will make little girls want to be Nim.
Indeed, the identification factor is the primary problem that ultimately undermines Nim's Island. We don't mind being whisked off to places unknown, interacting with individuals totally unlike ourselves, as long as we see a little authenticity in their actions. Even the wildest, most outlandish feats will fly just as long as we feel connected to what the characters are doing. But Nim's Island is all too insular, lost in its own unique universe somewhere between Swiss Family Robinson and Joe vs. the Volcano. As a book (by Wendy Orr), one envisions a pleasant, pulpy page turner. As a film, some of it succeeds. The rest renders the pleasantries only passable.