NIM’S ISLAND isn’t exactly a Fantasy Island. It’s more like Devil’s Island, the French penal colony located in ‘Guiane’ in the Steve McQueen film, PAPILLON. Okay, I admit it; it’s not really that bad. I’m being mighty melodramatic to make a point: the film could have used a lot more fantastical melodrama because most thinking adults will find its fantasy adventure elements weak and a bit of a strain, even if very young girls—and maybe some little boys—find connection with it. It won’t bring in boys by the boatload, however, because there isn’t enough guy-type stuff going on and the whole adventure is too flat and uninspired to get the adrenaline flowing. This is the main reason that weakness in appeal goes double for most people with any age to them.
That is all rather sad because the female gender doesn’t get its own fantasy adventure films very often (anyone remember Pippi Longstocking?) and I was really rooting for this one to capture the imagination of young girls and boys. Alas, I saw it with a young lady and it charmed not one of us. Regrettably, NIM’S ISLAND is yet another fantasy adventure film that simply doesn’t know what it wants to be, so it certainly doesn’t know what it is, and consequently neither does its audience. Thus, the film’s a bit of an amalgam. It sprinkles in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, so it cannot find its own world environment and be faithful to it.
The writing-directing team of Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (the upcoming JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH 3D, WIMBLEDON) demonstrate only mild imagination in their story telling, and their direction is quite spiritless, given the somewhat ‘fantastical’ nature of their subject matter. Too, they couldn’t seem to pin down whether they really wanted to delve into a fantasy adventure realm (there is just one real attempt in this area, and it’s a wimpy one) or whether they wanted to bring a fantasy element into what was supposed to be reality. To my mind the reality was more far-fetched than the fantasy. The whole piece was also slightly over the top (note an overacted & cartoonish airport security scene), yet under whelming at the same time.
Though Mr. Levin has previously directed one feature film, Ms. Flackett is making her first venture into that area. Both have worked together in the past as writers for television, and frankly it shows here. The entire film feels like a made-for-TV movie for the Disney Channel. And the message—be the hero of your own story—is simplistically, and I think disingenuously, put forth. Nim, our little heroine played by Abigail Breslin (DEFINITELY, MAYBE and yes, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), is for all intents and purposes a little MacGyver. She doesn’t need to be taught this lesson. In fact, she controls her father (referring to him as Jack instead of dad, except when our storytellers want us to feel particularly sorry for her), and runs and repairs things quite effectively by herself (again, until the storytellers want to develop a cheap and unconvincing device to get an adventure author to the island). Personal note: I was appalled by Nim’s initial treatment of that character. It was bitterly rude and selfishly contemptuous. I understand the thought process behind it; however, it was poorly thought out and executed.
That kind of brings me to the basic plot. Jodie Foster (THE BRAVE ONE, INSIDE MAN, FLIGHTPLAN) plays an agoraphobic writer who is of course afraid to leave her home in San Francisco. She also interacts with the main character of her books, an Indiana Jones type personality played by Gerard Butler (P.S. I LOVE YOU, BUTTERFLY ON A WHEEL, 300), as if he were real. Nim is a young girl who loves to read and is enthralled with books about the adventures of Alex Rover, the creation of Foster’s character, who also happens to be her invention’s namesake. Nim and her scientist-journalist father, Jack, also played by Gerard Butler, live on a semi-secret island where Jack conducts his research and does his writing. He won’t tell anyone where he is because he wants to keep his personal laboratory in pristine condition and to himself. If other men set foot on it, they will destroy its beauty and natural balance, as we’re quite forcefully shown later on when a greedy opportunistic group lands there and one member immediately throws a candy wrapper on the ground and spits upon it.
One day Jack decides he needs to take a short boat trip to conduct a sample gathering. Nim talks him into leaving her behind for the two days he is expected to be gone because she wants to demonstrate that she’s a big girl now and wishes to take care of herself and her animal friends. Jack agrees and heads off. But a terrible storm hits their area and essentially destroys Jack’s boat, leaving him and his daughter stranded alone. Each must fend for themselves. and father must find a way to return to daughter. In the mean time the greedy opportunists, now accompanied by a bunch of dopey, pasty-white tourists, threaten to move in on the beautiful paradise, and Nim must find a way to drive them all off, a la HOME ALONE, but with none of that film’s spirit, energy or fun.
At one point Nim falls and cuts her leg, and this is the impetus that gets Foster’s character to work up the nerve to leave her home and make the journey to the island in order to rescue the poor little waif. Why, you ask? Well, because Jack happened to be email pals with the writer, and in his absence Nim discovers this and does a bit of communicating herself. And of course Ms. Rover feels bad because the girl’s father is missing and she hurt herself while trying to gather some information on an old volcano for the writer.
The story is relayed to us at some points via narration from Nim, but it adds nothing to the telling of the overall piece or our enlightenment. In fact, it even works at odds at some points. For example, through narration it is explained that Jack teaches Nim, “If we take care of our island, it will take care of us.” Then in the next narrative breath Nim explains why we see a delivery ship dropping off supplies to them: it’s bringing material they need that they cannot gather or manufacture for themselves. Yet we still find them subsiding on a diet of grub worms and the like. Okay, if you say so, filmmakers. The film is plagued with lunkheaded thinking like this.
The uninspired direction takes little advantage of the fantastical environment that potentially exists. There are a couple of cute animation sequences and nice scene transitions, yet very little real spunk or excitement to this fantasy adventure. The directors don’t even fully utilize their island location. There are too many simple talking head shots and not enough of a cinematic point of view, especially given the genre & surroundings. It also felt as though every single actor was being underutilized (Foster is certainly worthy of better material) and under coached in terms of their characters. I couldn’t buy into what was going on or what was being said. Things just weren’t gelling properly.
The rest of the artistic and technical aspects of the film are approached in the same manner. Mostly small screen efforts, I’m sorry to say. Many of the sound effects were quite noticeably and ridiculously unreal—and I’m referring to non-fantasy moments. Composer Patrick Doyle (ERAGON, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE), who went way over the top when he shouldn’t have with his score for DEAD AGAIN, plays it rather soft here when he should have spiked it more to play up the fantasy-adventure, especially since the film could’ve used extra help in those areas.
There was a true opportunity to take Wendy Orr’s and Kerry Millard’s children’s book and make from it a fun, adventurous film for girls (and boys too). Instead, we’ve been given a somewhat boring bit of intended fluff that has no honest puff. That’s a real shame too because it could have been fun for a lot wider range of folks. The market needs more good family-friendly films. As it is, you’d probably be better off just watching or re-watching a real sweet gem like ENCHANTED, or a slightly flawed but sparkling charmer like SECOND HAND LIONS.
NIM’S ISLAND (Fox Walden, Apirl 4, 2008). Director: Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. Screenplay By: Joseph Kwong & Paula Mazur and Mark Levin & Jennifer Flackett; based on the Novel By: Wendy Orr. Producer: Paula Mazur. Director of Photography: Stuart Dryburgh. Costume Designer: Jeffrey Kurland. Production Designer: Barry Robison. Editor: Stuart Levy. 95 mins. Rated PG for mild adventure action and brief language. CAST: ALEX ROVER/JACK – Gerard Butler; ALEXANDRA – Jodie Foster; NIM – Abigail Breslin.