Review: Nim’s Island

Nim’s Island (2008)
Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster, Gerard Butler. Written by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, based on the novel by Wendy Orr. Directed by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett.

Nim is an eleven-year-old girl living alone with her father on a tiny, remote island in the Pacific. Her father Jack is a marine biologist searching for a new species of protozoa. Jack’s boat is hit by a huge storm while on a short expedition, and Nim is left to wonder what’s happened to him. With help from her pets on the island (a bearded dragon and a sea lion), she fends off an Australian tour company looking to turn her island into a resort, but when things get rough, she reaches out to her favorite author, an adventurer named Alex Rover, for help.

What nobody knows except Rover’s publisher and assistant is that Alex Rover is actually Alexandra Rover (played wonderfully by Jodie Foster), a germophobic agoraphobe who hasn’t ventured outside her house in San Francisco for years. But heck: Nim is a little girl all alone on an island, so Alexandra screws her courage to the sticking place and ventures out to save her.

This kids movie is too cutesy by about half, but this can be forgiven because of the filmmakers’ creativity and conscience in telling an interesting story about a tweener who’s neither a helpless baby nor a grownup in a kid’s body. Yes, she’s smart because she has been raised by a smart father, and yes she’s tough because she’s lived her whole life doing things for herself. But she’s also scared, not because she can’t take care of herself, but because where the heck is her father?

Parents are unlikely to love the story as much as their kids love it, but they may (as I) find the storytelling creative and thoughtful. Gerard Butler as Jack plays two roles in a way that’s far from gimmicky. Rather, this casting decision holds the entire film together for each of its three principal characters. Other technical decisions, such as the way Nim immerses herself in the stories she reads, and a considered but fairly indistinguishable reliance on CGI make this almost a great movie.

Where it falls short for me are where Levin and Flackett go to moviemaking shorthand in places where it’s senseless and unnecessary. I’m no vulcanologist, but I suspect the volcano on Nim’s island behaves in a decidely unrealistic way, which perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much if it weren’t a movie about a girl whose parents are scientists. And there is a scene at what is supposed to be the airport on Rarotonga that is straight out of movies from a less enlightened time, including chickens in bamboo cages and a gate attendant with a heavy Asian accent.

I wouldn’t mind the Asian woman with the Asian accent, because if the gate attendants in Honolulu can be accented Asian women, why not the attendants in Rarotonga? By itself it doesn’t bother me, but combined with the other silly (and frankly uneducational and unhelpful) stereotype-preserving decisions in this section of the film, it feels like nothing more than a device to give the illusion of being somewhere foreign. Writers like Levin and Flackett are smart enough to have thought of a better way, and it’s the kind of thing they generally avoid in their films. In the directors’ commentary on the DVD, they even say right up front at the beginning of the scene, “This is not what the airport in Rarotonga looks like! It’s actually lovely.” A huge disappointment.

One neat trick the directors employ is to let us see what the world looks and feels like to Alexandra, then to show us what it’s like to everyone else. Why not frame the silly exaggerated primitiveness of the Rarotonga airport as Alexandra’s perception, then show us what it really looks like?

If it seems I’m going on at excessive length about one semi-insignificant portion of the film, it’s because it’s the most representative of a few craw-sticking flaws. I expect this from lesser artist. Levin and Flackett have already demonstrated that they are not lesser artists.

Still, this is a film I would gladly watch with my kids, if they weren’t as imaginary as Alex Rover. Butler, Foster, and Breslin are perfectly cast, and there’s a commentary track on the DVD by Foster and Breslin that’s actually aimed at a young audience, with the actors talking about how much fun it was to make a movie, and some of the amazing things they learned about animals and islands during the film’s production. Another great idea.

71/100 but could have been a lot higher.

2 Replies to “Review: Nim’s Island”

  1. Not familiar with this film but I know the feeling you’re talking about (without possible racism). Like the sci-fi movie set in the future. A future with CRT computer monitors.

    How does whoever flew into Rarotonga International Airport disembark the airplane? Get from his or her seat to inside the airport? A metal aircraft boarding stairs that roll up to the plane like The Rolling Stones arriving in USA in 1964? The same type that is used on Rarotonga today?

    All the film makers needed to do was go across the street from the airport, sit on the mountainside and film a jet landing. Cut to whomever it is arriving descending the metal stairs. With palm trees and the ocean in the background we know we are on a tropical island.

    Trust a pro.

    There was an AT&T television commercial from before I was born. In the old days, “long distance” telephone calls were expensive so AT&T wanted your money by encouraging people to reach out and touch someone which sounds kind of pervy by today’s standards. Also, common lengths for TV commercials were thirty and sixty seconds.

    One or two seconds of the commercial showed a white woman wearing a leotard and tights like a ballerina sitting on a yoga mat while talking on a princess ‘phone. Plaster walls, white woodwork. A baby crawls into the frame. It is raining – a special machine was rented to get the rain effect on the nine over nine double -hung windows because a garden hose isn’t good enough.

    Cut to a black woman. She is wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. If I remember correctly one of the production assistants had to lend the actress her bra. Brick wall, industrial-type window. While she talks on the ‘phone a cat walks up to her.

    What does this mean? The white woman is married to a successful white man, has a baby and lives in a substantal house. The black woman lives in a loft apartment in a big city and is single. They are old college friends catching up after their morning work-out routines. Thank goodness for Alexander Graham Bell.

    Maybe Nim’s Island had budgetary problems and was stuck with sound stage sets.

  2. Yeah, I was really disapointed in some of these shortcut decisions. I know budget had to be a consideration, but they already were shooting a bunch of scenes on a soundstage. They couldn’t shoot on location with the trained sea lions because they might have lost them. And the soundstage stuff is really well done, including some interesting beach-ocean scenes. If I ever get to speak with them about writing, I am definitely going to bring this up, after I tell them how awesome they are. 🙂

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