Saturday, April 5, 2008
In Nim's Island , Foster plays Alex Rover, an agoraphobic writer of adventure novels featuring an Indiana Jones-like hero named Alex Rover. These novels are the favorites of little Nim (Abigail Breslin), the daughter of scientist Jack Rusoe (Gerard Butler). Nim and her dad have been living alone on their own private island in the South Pacific where Jack is doing research. Father and daughter have pretty much cut themselves off from the rest of the world, choosing an island paradise as an escape from the fact that Nim's mom died years ago.
But when Jack goes out to sea to collect some specimens, he gets caught in a storm and Nim's left alone fearing the worst. That's when she gets an email inquiry from Alex Rover. Alex (who is really Alexandra) wants Jack to provide information about the volcano on the island for a book she's writing, but Nim assumes the Alex Rover in the email is THE Alex Rover, the adventurer. So she requests his help. This prompts Alexandra - with some egging on by her fictional character -- to finally get out of her apartment to help Nim.
Abigail Breslin enjoying an Alex Rover adventure in Nim's Island (Fox-Walden)
Based on Wendy Orr's novel, Nim's Island desperately wants to be an inspiring children's fantasy mixing equal parts Swiss Family Robinson, Dr. Doolittle, Home Alone and Finding Neverland . I haven't read the book so it's quite possible Orr got all the elements right but unfortunately the filmmakers haven't. And yes, like in animated films, this has taken a pair of directors, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, to bring the story to the screen. The problem is that the filmmakers seem to have little genuine imagination. Their approach reveals little understanding of what makes for good fantasy or adventure.
They assume that since this is a children's fantasy, the effects and design can be low tech and don't have to blow you away with a lot of bells and whistles. They are sort of correct. The effects don't have to look big budget and epic. That approach sunk the recent Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, which was fatally weighed down by its big scale attempts to create a vivid and magical fantasy world. Nim's Island tries for a smaller scale and with some good intentions. The filmmakers bring Nim's books to life as photos on the page start to move or as Nim's room pulls apart to reveal one of Alex Rover's adventures. In concept, these are all fine but they fail in execution. The filmmakers' approach simply lacks true magic and imagination. When the walls of Nim's room are pulled away to reveal a vast desert and Rover in dire straights, it needs to inspire wonder and awe. Terry Gilliam pulled such a moment off when a white stallion charged out of a young boy's closet in Time Bandits. But the gimmick in Nim's Island just feels forced and calculated.
The animation that's used to tell parts of the story employs a visual style that looks like paper cut outs, which could be charming. But it ends up looking like an adult trying to do something that looks like a kid made it. Achieving this kind of fantasy look is no easy task and although Nim's filmmakers try, they unfortunately fall far short of screen magic. A couple of the animated shorts at the recent San Diego Latino Film Festival dazzled to far greater effect with far less money in creating a fantasy world that could inspire and consume us. (Check out Tyger for one.)
Gerard Butler and Jodie Foster in Nim's Island (Fox-Walden)
Flackett and Levin also fail to get decent performances from their adult actors. I have heard that Foster was attracted to this project because she wanted to do comedy again -- and I can understand that attraction. But I can't quite understand her choice. In Nim's Island she's is forced to play broad comedy in such an over the top manner that it becomes embarrassing. I haven't felt this embarrassed for a star since Robert DeNiro donned a tutu and did the can-can in Stardust . Foster's character is drawn in such ridiculous strokes that she is nothing more than a caricature copping out to every clich e about reclusive writers. Butler, who plays both the scientist dad and Alexandra's alter ego Alex Rover, is adrift in more ways than one. He tries to maintain a bad American accent as the dad and he only manages to invest the Rover character with a modicum of fun. He has also gone rather soft both emotionally and physically, leaving his lean mean Leonidas from 300 far behind. In the case of both Foster and Butler it really comes down to a question of how broadly should they be playing the gags, and how much of a real character they need to create. The filmmakers fail to provide helpful guidelines for their stars and the result is a condescending children's film with wildly erratic performances. I think the only time I laughed was when Foster mimics Butler's Scottish brogue. Young Breslin fares better but only because she's allowed to develop a little more as a character... but only a little.
Nim's Island (rated PG for mild adventure action and brief language) screened for the press at Sea World where the projection never seemed to find sharp focus and where the Sea World bug remained in the lower right corner for the entire screening. Poor Clyde the sea lion was paraded in front of the crowd to tie in with the pivotal seal character in the film. The setting of a theme park, though, was oddly appropriate for this film which seems designed like a theme park ride and about as real and engaging as one. I can see the germ of a fun fantasy lurking deep inside Nim's Island but the filmmakers keep it well buried. Nim's Island is only for parents who feel in most desperate need of "family fare."
Companion viewing: Time Bandits, Dr. Doolittle (the one with Rex Harrison, not Eddie Murphy), My Neighbor Totoro, The Water Horse