Early in Nim’s Island, the lovely, serenely self-confident Nim (Abigail Breslin) loses herself in a new book. It’s the latest in her favorite series, written by Alex Rover and starring Alex Rover, an adventurer of the Indiana Jones persuasion. As Nim settles into her bed and begins reading My Arabian Adventure, the screen situates her in the middle of the fantasy, such that Alex (Gerard Butler) appears in the desert, surrounded by dark-skinned Arabs in white robes. To effect his escape from the threat of a “Pot of Spiders,” he grabs up one of his enemies’ swords and starts swashbuckling. They fall by the wayside, defeated.
Nim smiles, her faith in Alex’s heroism reaffirmed. But you might be cringing. Racist fantasy is never a good start for a children’s film, or any film, for that matter. It’s also not helpful that Alex’s next adventure, imagined by his creator back in San Francisco, Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), has him tied to a pole and carried by black African primitives, who mean to dump him into a volcano as a human sacrifice. Erk.
These disturbing images are, to be fair, brief, essentially jokey moments in Nim’s Island. The focus is more earnestly on the relationship that develops between 11-year-old Nim and Alex from San Francisco, as they correspond by email. Nim lives on a remote South Pacific island with her widower dad, Jack (also Butler), a researcher and adventurer in his own way. Though his current, apparently obsessive interest is nanoplankton, he and his daughter live on the island in part because he has written for National Geographic about its volcano. When Alex needs information about volcanoes, she finds his name in a search engine and writes for help. Because dad’s away on a plankton-seeking mission on his sailboat, Nim answers, and when Alex asks a particular question — do volcanoes actually have lava percolating inside them all the time? — the girl hikes on over to the volcano and takes a peep inside, injuring herself in a fall off the mountainside.
The plot picks up speed when Nim lets Alex know that she is not in fact Jack’s research associate, but is his young daughter and moreover, that she has a bloody knee that’s producing pus and he has gone missing at sea following a storm the night before. Alex worries. She and Nim exchange more emails, a tedious business that has each reading aloud what she types and then what she reads, their voices sliding into one another to suggest just how perfectly suited they are for one another. Their voices also slide into that of Alex the character, whose Scottish brogue suggests he’s something like a conventional and romantic hero. Nim, for now, believes she’s talking to him via email, seeking his advice and solace as she frets about her missing dad; at the same time, Alex the writer converses with Alex the character, mostly so he can chide her for not seeking adventure, for staying in her house.
Alex describes herself as “borderline agoraphobic,” though, as Alex the character points out, the fact that she hasn’t stepped outside in weeks suggests she’s past “borderline.” When Nim asks Alex the character to come save her (she’s alone on the island with her best friends, partly and poorly animated beasties with names, like Galileo the pelican, Sulky the sea lion, and an iguana she calls Fred), Alex the writer feels compelled to say she’s come. This especially after she learns that her local 911 only services the Greater San Francisco Area.
Alex books a connection flight to Rarotonga, at which point she’ll need to travel by cab-boat-helicopter to reach Nim’s unnamed island. The journey is harrowing, no doubt (though a potentially sly Flightplan reference is not much fun), but Alex is prone to overreacting and product placing (she’s devoted to Purell hand sanitizer and Progresso soup), which tends to slow the action and focus attention on her splayed legs, frazzling hair, or wide eyes. While she plainly recalls Romancing the Stone‘s Joan Wilder, Alex follows a route to self-realization that — at least for the first hour or so — is not premised on romance with a man.
It is a great concept, this focus on a woman and a girl’s efforts to aid one another, even if they are interrupted and encouraged by Alex/Jack (note to Butler, who bellows into the night more than once, “I will come back to you Nim!”, that he might consider a rider in his future contracts, that he does not bellow in his movies, post-300). Still, the movie in practice is prone to plod along, especially when Nim is dumped into a Home Alone-ish scenario, caused when a cruise ship full of tourists invades the island and she feels compelled to chase them away with tricks and harassments, rather than, say, use the ship’s technology or crew’s expertise to go find her dad. Portly white folks in sunhats make for formidable opponents if you’re an 11-year-old who’s only had animals for friends since her mother was swallowed by a blue whale (this is the story her dad has told her). And they are an alternative to the Alex Rover monsters. But Nim’s sidetracking here only fills time, tediously. You’re left wishing that Nim and Alex the writer would get together sooner.