Empty"Nim's Island" is a crowded one, a tropical isle jammed with childhood fantasies, exotic creatures, outlandish plots and improbable characters both real and imagined.
The idyllic island makes Disneyland's Jungle Cruise look like neo-realism and contains more well-meaning messages than an After School Special, yet this family comedy adventure from Walden Media is likable in a scruffy way. Its characters, especially the youngest one, are engaging, and few adults are immune to childhood fantasies about secluded tropical isles. Fox can anticipate above average business from a broad audience.
The script by the husband-and-wife directing team of Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett ("Little Manhattan") along with producer Paula Mazur and Joseph Kwong draws upon Wendy Orr's 2002 novel about a remote volcanic paradise that hosts two humans, a tomboyish young girl Nim (Abigail Breslin) and her scientist father. Her playmates are Selkie the Sea Lion, Fred the Bearded Dragon and Galileo the Pelican, while her literary hero is Alex Rover, the lionhearted star of adventure novels.
When a storm strands her dad at sea without any means of communication and the island is threatened with devastation -- by tourists -- she reaches out to Alex via the Internet. How is Nim to know that her hero actually is Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), an agoraphobic writer locked up in her San Francisco apartment, afraid to venture as far as the mailbox.
Both females find the inner strength to challenge their worst fears, thanks in large measure to the fictional courage of Alex Rover. Scottish hunk Gerard Butler plays the dual role of Nim's father and the intrepid Alex Rover, an Indiana Jones with a heartier laugh, who appears to Alexandra and haunts Nim's imagination.
Unlike "Romancing the Stone," where a novelist finds herself pleasingly trapped within an adventure that mirrors her fictional creations, "Nim's Island" doesn't know where to draw the line between real life and fiction. When "real life" characters pilot a helicopter and then a row boat in a typhoon and a little girl can jump start a volcano, what role does fiction have to play?
Breslin is on the surest footing here. She instinctively knows how broadly to play the young heroine, making her game feisty but still a little girl terrified over her missing dad. Butler rolls through both roles by channeling an overdeveloped sense of macho into slightly different versions of the same man.
It is Foster, though, who stumbles with the overripe comedy. Too much slapstick slips into her performance. The agoraphobe's anxieties are all played for laughs, so no real victory is achieved by her overcoming what can be a very real distress.
The beaches of Australia's Gold Coast, rain forests of Hinchinbrook Island, visual effects and highly trained exotic animals create a whimsical paradise you only wish you, and no one else, had discovered.
A Walden Media production
Directors: Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett
Screenwriters: Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett, Paula Mazur, Joseph Kwong
Based on the novel by: Wendy Orr
Producer: Paula Mazur
Executive producer: Stephen Jones
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Barry Robison
Music: Patrick Doyle
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editor: Stuart Levy
Nim: Abigail Breslin
Alexandra: Jodie Foster
Jack/Alex Rover: Gerard Butler
Captain: Michael Carmen
Purser: Mark Brady
Running time -- 96 minutes
MPAA rating: PG