It's a good thing Child Protective Services never saw Nim (Abigail Breslin) in action or there wouldn't be any movie. Nim would be quietly toiling away in school, perhaps going to the mall and texting her friends. But in the new PG-rated family film Nim's Island, she climbs trees (and volcanoes), swings through the jungle, cooks dinner using mealworms as a main ingredient, reads adventure stories and talks to animals. Nim's father, Jack (Gerard Butler), is a marine biologist who has set up residence on a remote, South Pacific island to study microorganisms. It's just the two of them, so when Jack goes off on a two-day expedition to find new samples, Nim insists on staying behind. But after a huge storm, Jack is left stranded in the middle of the ocean. And when "pirates" (really tourists) invade the island, and her father fails to return on schedule, Nim gets scared.
Who should she turn to but her hero, Alex Rover, the star and author of her favorite novels? And it just so happens that Alex has writer's block and has e-mailed Jack with questions on volcanoes. So Nim e-mails Alex back and asks him to come. Of course, Alex is really Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster) an agoraphobic who never leaves her San Francisco apartment and takes refuge in hand sanitizer and canned soup. The fictional Alex Rover, dressed like Indiana Jones in fedora and leather jacket (and played, once again, by Gerard Butler) appears and coaxes the writer into making the trip. The "uptight character learning through experience to loosen up" is a Hollywood staple, but Foster has enough skill to play Alex with a certain quiet suffering, rather than a Ben Stiller-like aggression. Her small, whiny episodes have a certain charm, and they're often funny.
Butler's costume is a dead giveaway; co-directors Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin and co-writers Joseph Kwong and Paula Mazur, who adapted Wendy Orr's 2002 novel, have clearly taken "Indiana Jones" as their inspiration. You may remember one of the first and most successful "Indy" ripoffs, Romancing the Stone (1984), starring Kathleen Turner as a spoiled novelist who learns about life by traipsing through the jungle with a real live adventurer, played by Michael Douglas. That movie at least understood the appropriate pace for adventure, comedy and romance. Nim's Island feels choppy and rushed, as if the filmmakers were cheating their way through shots to move the film faster. For example, when Nim climbs the volcano, the filmmakers cut from a close-up of Breslin with her face up against some rocks (which could have been shot anywhere) to a CGI Breslin double climbing a volcano, back to the close-up. Perhaps that digital double ruined the effect, or perhaps it's the tricky smooshing of cinematic space, but the rhythm feels all wrong.
Fortunately, the film still luxuriates in the feel of wide-open spaces and fresh air. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, The Painted Veil) finds a breathtaking, airy brightness that's actually kind of relaxing. When Alex opens her door for the first time in weeks to get her mail, the wind and rain hits her face and we can almost feel it. The sea water feels clean and the air feels fresh; this could almost be a good summer vacation movie if it weren't only April. But where the movie really succeeds is in the little things it avoids. The film features a lizard, a walrus and a pelican (mostly CGI) that befriend Nim; she talks to them, but they do not talk back. Nor do they make pratfalls or participate in toilet or bodily function jokes. In one scene, Nim throws a "party" and dances around her jungle house but the creatures only move within the boundaries of reality instead of standing on two feet, dancing and making funny faces at the camera. It's all very refreshingly low-key and straightforward.Still, my overall impression of the film was merely a shrug. The lack of pacing and smoothness on the part of the directors eventually drags down the entire package. Jumpy, spatially disconnected chase scenes leave you yawning rather than cheering. Moreover, the directors never really shape anyone else's performance besides Foster's (perhaps she directed herself?). Butler often projects his lines too loudly or too fast, and though Breslin has a lovely little smile, her character comes across as somehow abbreviated. In Little Miss Sunshine, her character grew richer through the company of her screwed-up family members. But here, she's alone with digital creatures. She can certainly play scared when she's supposed to be scared or happy when she's supposed to be happy, but the transitions are missing. The film runs only 96 minutes; perhaps it could have used another 10 or so minutes just to relax and smooth over the bumps. That way, Nim's island lifestyle might have moved a little less like the malls and cell phones it tries to leave behind.