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Nim's Island

Fox // PG // August 5, 2008
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted July 24, 2008 | E-mail the Author
It's odd that the stars of Silence of the Lambs, 300, and Little Miss Sunshine have such a weak effect on Nim's Island's excitement level. You'd think that these electric personalities would light up a continent-jumping paradise adventure; instead, this novel-inspired pseudo-fantasy relies on unexplainably easy plot bridges and sumptuous photography to entertain its diverse audience. There's something to be said for escapist movies that don't really "need" to make sense, but this picture pushes that envelope a little hard with its falsetto tonality and illogical laziness. Even for a kid's film, Nim's Island tip-toes much too close to patronization.

The Film:

We're takes on a Swiss Family Robinson kind of ride as focus lands on Nim (Abigail Breslin, Definitely, Maybe) and Jack Rusoe (Gerard Butler, The Phantom of the Opera), daughter and father who have transplanted themselves to a lush faraway island for Jack's oceanic research. They have many more modern conveniences on their island, though, such as electricity and internet access at their disposal. Still, they focus on the simple pleasures in life, like cooking bizarre foods native to the island, playing with the local animals, and reading about the fictional adventures of Alex Rover, an adventurer who gives Nim controlled doses of the outside world.

One day, Jack sets out on a plankton research trip, and with much persuasion, leaves Nim to fend for herself. Ironically, after Jack has been away for a few days longer than planned, Nim receives an e-mail from none other than Alex Rover "him"-self, seeking to learn more about the faraway island. In a relatively muddled plot complication, "Alex" just so happens to be Alexandra (Jodie Foster, Maverick), the uber-obsessive compulsive author of the Rover books who uses her work as an outlet for her incapacity to indulge in the outside world. Their communications grow more necessary as Alex's deadlines for new material grow near and as Nim's father remains lost. But when the threat of invading pirates comes into the picture, thus endangering Nim, Alex must make some tough decisions.

Kinda like Home Alone on a tropical vacation, Nim's Island's only appeal lies in the smarts that the lead characters put into both defending and returning to their home. Now, with the holiday favorite I previously mentioned, the tech is very rudimentary and, in most respects, can be seen as possible solution rattling around in a child's mind -- the hot iron on the doorhandle, directly followed by ice on the stairs as Joe Pesci falls behind always gets me. On Nim's little slice of paradise, solutions are both uninteresting and shrouded with disbelief. Glaring holes surface, like certain animal's abilities to douse fires and carry tools over prolonged distances which, even set in a pseudo-fantasy based environment, just don't cut the mustard when you're trying to buy into the story. How do they have internet access on an unknown island? How does Nim know how to fix the technology on the island without much effort? How did they train a seal to put a fire out? You get the picture.

The sole bright point in Nim's Island shines through in Jodie Foster's mockingly goofy agoraphobic writer Alexandra Rover. She's not given the availability to be in top form, and as with much of the rest of the film comes across as fairly unbelievable. If just about anyone else were settled into the role, I probably would've despised Alexandra, thus leaving me with no characters to identify with. Foster keeps Alexandra animated, bubbly, erratic, and, at certain times, just pure fun to watch as she tosses around ideas with her imaginary muse, an Indiana Jones-inspired adventurer played, as well, by Gerard Butler. It's a lot more fun to watch her mannerisms and physical reactions though (which are the true roots of her talents) than hear her crippling dialogue. Trying to make sense of the way Alexandra is, as well as her ill-researched and hasty decision to bolt from her house -- agoraphobia and all -- exposes the film's weak underbelly.

Nim's Island suffers mostly because of a wishy-washy script, especially concerning some nerve rattling dialogue, and similarly empty performances from the rest of the cast. Based on a children's reader from Wendy Orr, it's understandable why the filmmakers might concentrate on pretty photography and, surprisingly, some rather decent visual effects for the animals instead of character work. In embodying the aura of a children's film, however, Nim's Island neglects to appreciate the viewer's intelligence enough to help it make more abundant sense. This also includes fleshing out Nim and her father as characters, which echo through Breslin and Butler's hollow performances. Both of these actors have past iconic roles under their belts, which is somewhat retroactive on their success; Butler is batting 0-for-2 in the lighthearted comedic roles for me (read P.S. I Love You for feelings on that), which is an indicator that he needs to stick to more pure testosterone roles akin to Leonidus and Beowulf to hold his potency. Breslin just stumbles over sloppy scripting for her role as Nim, indirectly making her way too cartoonish to be inspiring.

At least the Australian-shot cinematography is gorgeous, especially since it makes for the sole element that nurtures your visual needs throughout the film. Even when the rambunctious, nonsensical pirate ("buccaneers" as they're referred to in the film) wars goop up the story with poor pacing and sloppy references to consumer tendencies, it can still be fun to dart your eyes around to all the lush greens and splendid blues that adorn the screen during this thematic chaos. It's reminiscent of the reaction Jamie Foxx's character has when looking at a postcard of paradise taped to the flap of his taxi in Collateral; just for a moment, while glancing at that nearly touchable beauty, he forgets about all the bad things that are directly in front of him for just a few seconds. Nim's Island tries to make the photographic images and "Gilligan's Island" essence enough for viewer enjoyment, but instead just takes attention away from wrongdoings for merely moments at a time.

The DVD:

The Video & Audio:

As this is a Fox screening copy, the audio and video portions of the disc are unfinalized, thus showing a lot of digital pixelation, edge enhancement, etc. Once these wrinkles get ironed out, Nim's Island should be a gorgeous visual treat. Nim's sounds fine in it English language track, but we'll have to wait it out to see how the final product shall present itself. Looks like optional English and Spanish subtitles will be available.

The Extras:

Thankfully, the extra material really helped me to appreciate all the effort that went into the production of this film. Here's what we've got:

Adventure Commentary with Abigail Breslin and Jodie Foster:
As this more kids-based commentary progresses along, Jodie Foster plays the role of the knowledgeable liaison while Abigail just acts like herself with the tidbits that she took away form the making of the film. They discuss the natural aspects, such as the preservation of the island that they worked on and the differences between visual effects and real animals in the film. Foster talks on a little bit more of an intelligent level than children might identify with, but if you have older, more adept children (or are a curious adult, like myself), you'll pull some nice natural information from this "adventure commentary".

Audio Commentary with Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett:
A more traditional commentary, though somewhat simplified for more younger audiences, this is a nice track that discusses adaptation of the film, crafting the beginning and concluding paper history sequences, as well as the differences between studio and location shooting. By far, the coolest material to take away from the track is the comparisons between fake and real animals and how thet incorporated the two into the film. Watching this richly visual film while listening to the filmmakers' commentary track came close to the experience you'd get on a tour of paradise - and ended up being my second favorite part of the disc.


Nim's Friends:
As to be expected, this featurette concentrates on the three animals featured in the film: a sea lion, a bearded dragon, and a pelican. There's a lot of Abigail Breslin's feelings on the animals, as well as descriptions on how the crew worked with each of them. You don't learn a whole lot, except the species of each and how many "actors" each of the animal characters required for each portion.

Abigail's Journey:
This is a more typical making-of featurette that focuses on Abigail's efforts in portraying Nim with the rest of the cast members. It's typical marketing fluff that describes everyone's enjoyment with working with the entire cast.

Working on Water:
Here's where the material gets interesting. This 6-minute featurette covers the assembly of the numerous water scenes across Nim's Island. It dhows how they adapted Breslin to breathing underwater for prolonged periods of time, as well as showing how they green screened Jodie Foster for several shots. This is a great little feature.

Deleted Scenes:

Nim's Island was, admittedly, not a very good movie. Here's what's bugging me about that: if the deleted scenes are any indication, then it could've been drastically different and, in my opinion, a lot more interesting of a film. A restored cut with these extra portions would be a welcome effort from this end. Though there are only three categories listed, each portion carries a substantial amount of material about each subject:

Imaginary Characters:
Here, Nim interacts with several characters from literature, including Huck Finn, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and Long John Silver. It's interesting to see Nim resort to imagination, especially from the literature that she reads, to create friends for herself on the island. Very interesting mechanic and, as far as I could tell, each of these imaginary characters had some not-too-shabby dialogue to share about their existence.

Alexandra's Assistant, Russell:
Alexandra, instead of just relying on Alex Rover to be her connection with the outside world, has an assistant in these scenes. He knows her likes, including her penchant for Progesso soup, and attempts to pull her out of her agoraphobia. They share some rather decent dialogue, even bringing a therapist into the mix. Furthermore, he has a GREAT tidbit to do with the conclusion that would have really helped with the cohesiveness of its conclusion.

The Great Blue Whale:
Finally, there's the Great Blue Whale stuff. At the beginning, we learn that Nim's mother is "consumed" by such a beast. Whether that's just metaphorical or not is inconsequential; however, they DID have a sculpture of a really neat collage blue whale that symbolized their mother. Later in the film, shown by the deleted scenes, this sculpture tries to swallow Jodie Foster's character at one point.

Also included are some nature Public Service Announcements, as well as a Theatrical Trailer.


Final Thoughts:

If visual beauty and escapist "just trust it" logic were higher up on my cinematic allowances, then Nim's Island would've probably come over me with a warmer reception. However, this family adventure lacked the compelling characters, tolerable dialogue, and thoughtful sensibility to win me over. However, it is a very pretty and rambunctious island film, and paired with a few entertaining audio commentaries and some curiously solid deleted scenes, this Nim's Island disc is one worth a Rental for families -- and purely to check out what the film might have been. This is a case where interesting bonus material was a flick's saving grace.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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