Friday, April 04, 2008

"Nim's Island" -- * * 1/2

In "Nim's Island," Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett's follow-up to their thoroughly adorable "Little Manhattan," everything is always pitched at a slightly higher volume than necessary. From the performances to the visuals to the actual decibel-shattering volume of the score and sound effects, the key adjective here is "loud."The movie is moderately fun (if pretty kiddie) despite it all, and it's always nice to see kids fare that seems to have come from a place of genuine enthusiasm, and showcase creativity rather than tired-and-true elements. This certainly isn't going to be a crossing-all-demographics sensation, but if you have an 8-to-12-year-old daughter, I can't think of a more perfect film to take them to. Everyone else won't find much to appeal to them here, but even they're likely to find the proceedings fairly harmless.

Our protagonist, Nim (Abigail Breslin), lives on an uncharted island with her father Jack (Gerard Butler) and her best friends, a lizard, a sea lion and a pelican named Galileo. Nim and Jack, when they're not spending time with wildlife, read the adventure books detailing the exploits of Indiana Jones-esque Alex Rover (also played by Butler), written by an author of the same name (Jodie Foster). Though she's achieved success on the level of J.K. Rowling, Rover suffers from, as she says, a "slight case" of agoraphobia, and hasn't left her house in 16 weeks. When, out on an expedition, Jack finds his boat damaged by a bad storm and slowly sinking (VERY slowly-- pretty much the entire movie). Resourceful Nim seeks the help of the real Rover, who leaves her house and makes the long journey to the island to help save Jack. All the while, money-grubbing Australians are trying to turn the island into a tourist spot, against Nim's wishes.

Everyone seems to be having fun here (except, oddly, Breslin), but none of the performances are much to write home about. Little Miss Sunshine Breslin is quickly becoming this generation's child actress who can capably cry in every movie; she's like the miniature Jennifer Connelly! Butler, like in every movie in which he's appeared, showcases his smiling Irish charm with finesse, but not much else. The newly-out Foster, well, is certainly playing it to the wee ones with this performance. She plays it all very capably broad and loud (just to ensure the kiddies understand she's kind-of unstable) and even handles the obvious physical gags (she slips on a treadmill) with aplomb. One presumes Butler and Foster simply wanted to make a movie their kids could watch.

"Nim's" has its share of not-so-hot moments-- a set-piece involving catapulted lizards and toppling port-o-potties springs to mind-- and disappointing filmmaking decisions (closing the film with U2's way-tired "Beautiful Day," shoehorning in a heterosexual love story for Foster), but there's enough worthwhile stuff to keep it out of the "irritating for chaperoning parents" territory. The colorful flick always has an indeterminable energy that should keep kids involved, while never quite becoming frenetic. Along with some nice messages for the tykes ("Be the hero of your own life story" is repeated), there's a couple lines of dialogue that made me smile (Alex complains, "I don't want to touch the world, it's not sanitary!"). The movie's opening sequence is also pretty nifty, utilizing paper mache to give Nim and her dad a quick prologue.

Running a quick 84 minutes, "Nim's Island" isn't a hugely entertaining or inspired family film that will, or deserves to, break out of its niche audience, but to its target demo, it'll play rather well, and manages to do so without devolving into crassness or pandering. Fans of the leading actors won't be experiencing any of their best work, so I can't quite say the film's worth going for them; but in terms of kids films, I think this is your best bet at the moment.Though "Horton Hears a Who" is inexplicably pleasing audiences and critics alike, this, to me at least, seems to be equipped with more sincerity and originality throughout.


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