Not much is terribly new or challenging in this adaptation of Wendy Orr's novel. But Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin—child stars past and present—do make a smart, appealing pair.
Breslin is the titular Nim, an energetic, adventurous girl who's been living with her scientist father, Jack (Gerard Butler), on an undiscovered South Pacific island since her mother's death. Then one day he disappears while on an aquatic expedition, leaving Nim all alone with her animal friends. (Breslin enjoys several amusing and affectionate moments with some well-trained creatures, including a sea lion, a bearded dragon and a pelican.)
Mature beyond her years but understandably panicked, Nim seeks help from Alex Rover, the globe-trotting hero of her favourite book series (also played by Butler in an Indiana Jones-style hat and an appropriate amount of facial scruff). But her e-mail exchanges are actually with the author of the novels, Foster's Alexandra Rover—who's agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive and so generally fearful; she hasn't left her San Francisco apartment in months. It's a refreshing role change for Foster, who's normally so strong and in control on screen, and it gives the veteran actress a rare chance at doing physical comedy.
Perhaps it's a bit convenient that Nim and Alexandra are opposites who must connect to make each others' lives complete. One is afraid of nothing while the other is afraid of everything, as illustrated with a parallel-editing sequence in which Nim climbs a volcano while Alexandra struggles just to open the front door.
But husband-and-wife writers and directors Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, who made the 2005 charmer Little Manhattan, do get some heart-tugging moments out of their cast. (The couple co-wrote the script with Paula Mazur and Joseph Kwong.)
Butler gets to show off the skills that have helped bolster him to stardom in his last two disparate movies: He's hardy and brave as he was in the blockbuster 300, but also tender and playful as he was in the weepy PS I Love You. Levin and Flackett capably blend fantasy and reality, having Alex show up both in Nim's bedroom as she reads about his many adventures, and in Alexandra's apartment as she summons the courage to seek out this scared little girl and rescue her.
A couple of storms might be too intense for young kids who are afraid of thunder and lightning, and the whole movie might be troubling to youngsters who have separation anxiety issues. But those are only individual moments. For the most part, it's all smiles, sunshine, exotic scenery—and perhaps a couple of tears here and there.
Nim's Island, a Fox release, is rated PG for mild adventure action and brief language. Running time: 95 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.