The child’s mind is hard wired to have its pleasure centres fired up by a few essential ingredients and Nim’s Island, adapted from Wendy Orr’s 2002 novel, would appear to be a treasure trove of these delights.
It is (mostly) a live action fantasy film, with an eye-goggling cut out animation sequence at its start! There are high sea adventures, with storms, sharks, and even (sort of) pirates!! There is the island itself, full of friendly animals, dominated by an active volcano!!! There is the tomboyish protagonist Nim Rusoe (Abigail Breslin), who gets to lead an extraordinary, overstimulated existence far from school, living in a tree house with her marine biologist dad Jack (Gerard Butler) and her best friends, Fred the lizard, Galileo the pelican and Selkie the sea lion (who can fart on demand)!!!!! What youngster would not be enchanted?
All that is missing from this family idyll is a mother. Nim’s disappeared years earlier, possibly in an accident involving buccaneers and a whale, or, at least, that is the story Jack has told his daughter, and so she fills the gap in her life with an active imagination, sparked by the novels that she reads every night about globe-trotting adventurer Alex Rover.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Alex Rover’s creator, the novelist Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), can now add writer’s block to her many other ailments, including high stress, severe agoraphobia and a general aversion to human contact. Stumped for ideas and with a deadline looming, she reads about Jack in an online article and emails him for advice on volcanoes, but as Jack has been missing for several days in a monsoon, isolated Nim replies instead, hoping that Alex Rover can come to her rescue. For Alexandra, just stepping outside her front door is adventure enough, but egged on by her alter ego Alex (also played by Butler), she is soon heading halfway around the world to Nim’s island, where fiction turns to reality and broken families are put back together again.
Writer/director team (and real life couple) Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett have certainly made a busy film, stuffing it with all manner of wholesome themes (family values, the power of the imagination, the human need to reach out to others, etc), but those members of the audience over the age of 10 may find themselves a little undiverted by such sweet confection.
The character of Alexandra Rover seems to be compensation for this, there to lend the childish shenanigans some adult ballast. Perhaps that is why she is shown engaging in physical altercations with her id-like Alex, as though in some Fight Club-style psychodrama, or struggling to adapt to the “real” world outside her ivory tower, like the heroine of Adaptation. Yet, for all the curiosity of seeing Foster in a rare comic role, her neurotic, tic-afflicted, accident-prone Alexandra annoys more than engages, which is a problem for a character who contributes so little to the actual plot, apart from diversion – she certainly does not rescue the ever resourceful Nim.
Indeed, there is something of a double standard in the film’s presentation of Alexandra, held up for ridicule because of her choice to isolate herself from the outside world, even as Nim and Jack are celebrated for doing precisely the same thing. Similarly contradictory is the way that the film carefully distinguishes Nim’s imaginary and real worlds, only to populate her “reality” with preposterous anthropomorphised animals. Perhaps we are to suppose that ultimately everything emerges from Nim’s fertile imagination – she is, after all, the narrator – which raises the spectre of unwelcome alternatives. If all that we see on screen is so much escapist fantasy, then that licenses us to construct a contrasting reality, where, say, Nim’s father is not helped by a pelican to rebuild his boat and so dies at sea (as his wife did earlier), where Alexandra is as much a figment of Nim’s imagination as Alex is a figment of both, and where Nim in the end is left on the island, alone, injured and without hope, merely dreaming up her ideal family as a distraction from the pain, hunger and approaching death. Maybe, this is an adults’ film after all.
Not that any of it is likely to bother the kids. Breslin, meanwhile, proves once again that she is a ray of (little miss) sunshine, already ascending to superstardom, as Foster once did before her, at a very early age.