A rousing old-fashioned adventure story for our virtual reality era, Nim's Island tips its hat to retro fare, from The Swiss Family Robinson to Indiana Jones, but gives its storytelling a decidedly modern spin. Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, the married collaborators who co-wrote and directed, have achieved the big-budget Hollywood standard of seamlessly incorporating special effects into their fantasy narrative, but have also accomplished something rarer: a film that celebrates imagination.
This adaptation of Wendy Orr's novel gives equal weight to the interior and exterior lives of Nim Rusoe (Abigail Breslin) and Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster). Eleven-year-old Nim and her marine biologist father Jack (Gerard Butler of 300 and P.S. I Love You) have made their own off-the-grid Utopia on a remote South Pacific island. They're living not just green but ultramarine, harmoniously co-existing with oceanic wildlife (Nim befriends a sea lion, pelican and bearded dragon), and staying connected with the outside world via a satellite Internet uplink.
Alexandra, too, relies on her computer for communication, but her isolation is emotional, not geographic. She's the agoraphobic author of best-sellers featuring a globetrotting rogue named Alex Rover, who throws himself into danger with reckless abandon. The fluttery, frightened Alexandra couldn't be more different from her courageous, witty alter ego, or the resourceful and determined Nim, who devours these tales of derring-do with unabashed admiration.
When Levin and Flackett (Little Manhattan) juxtapose Nim scaling the island's volcano with Alexandra willing herself to walk a few steps outside to her mailbox, they drive home this family film's lesson on bravery. But what distinguishes Nim's Island is the way the filmmakers envision the internal lives of these solitary characters: Nim's stories are vividly animated, while Alexandra is confronted by a demanding manifestation of her hero (Butler).
This visually dazzling film moves effortlessly from the perils of the outside world — where Jack is lost at sea and a vulnerable Nim reaches out to Alex for help — to the inner dialogues that nourish this only child and withdrawn woman.
The versatile Butler heartily embodies both nerdy scientist and dashing rapscallion, while Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is spunkiness personified. But it's Foster who dives headlong into her role, displaying her gift for slapstick physical comedy that hasn't been showcased since 1976's Freaky Friday.
Amid the fast-paced action of Nim's Island is a fable of self-sufficiency and unwavering devotion, and the comforting myth that family can provide both.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.