Like a lush tropical getaway that promises paradise and delivers something closer to purgatory, “Nim’s Island” is a picturesque adventure-comedy that quickly capsizes under the weight of its obnoxious slapstick, pedestrian dialogue and general unwillingness to rise above stock ideas and situations. Recasting Robinson Crusoe as a young 21st-century heroine, and confirming Walden Media’s rep as a maker of slick, professional family entertainments of highly variable quality, this strictly-for-kids Fox release should ride the significant appeal of stars Abigail Breslin and Jodie Foster to make midsize B.O. waves.
There’s a difference between skewing toward young audiences and targeting dimwits of all ages, and too often this adaptation of Wendy Orr’s 1999 novel veers toward the latter. As directed by the husband-and-wife team of Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett (“Little Manhattan”), who share scripting chores with Joseph Kwong and producer Paula Mazur, “Nim’s Island” is much easier on the eyes than it is on the ears. It’s the sort of movie that compels its characters to recap plot points that weren’t exactly mind-bending the first time, read messages aloud even when the words are perfectly legible onscreen, and never miss an opportunity to overstate the obvious.
Breslin plays plucky, prepubescent tyke Nim Rusoe (get it?), who, for as long as she can recall, has lived happily with her scientist-writer dad Jack (Gerard Butler) in a large treehouse — handily outfitted with electricity and high-speed Internet — on an uncharted Pacific island. But when a violent storm hits and Jack is lost at sea, Nim seeks help through a chance correspondence with a person she thinks is the great explorer Alex Rover.
Trouble is, she’s actually exchanging emails with Alexandra Rover (Foster), a severely agoraphobic San Francisco author who couldn’t be more different from the Indiana Jones-style hero she writes about in her bestselling adventure novels. But Alexandra, touched by the girl’s pleas and spurred on by visions of Alex (also played by Butler) only she can see, decides to break out of her shut-in existence, find her way to the island and, inevitably, become the mother Nim never knew. (Latter was apparently swallowed by a whale shortly after Nim’s birth, as recounted in a five-minute prologue and cloyingly referenced throughout.)
Even the journey to this halfway mark seems to tax the film’s resources to the point of exhaustion, as the story bogs down in an excess of dialogue (some of it expository, most of it just embarrassing), half-hearted action-adventure mayhem, the usual supporting cast of friendly wildlife, and hyperactive cross-cutting among the principal characters.
While Nim attempts to contact her father and ward off some opportunistic island crashers, Alexandra trips, bumbles and vomits her way across the Pacific, affording Foster a rare opportunity to flex her physical-comedy muscles. But bearing the brunt of the pic’s increasingly tiresome pratfalls, she flexes rather too hard and too often.
Breslin is appealing and sparky as always but not much more in this lackluster addition to her resume, and her character’s tilt toward bratty self-entitlement in the second act underscores the reality that Nim’s wilderness existence is too cushy by half, a spoiled Girl Scout’s castaway fantasy. Butler, for his part, is both figuratively and literally at sea, as his Jack is forced to spend a ridiculous length of screen time hanging on for dear life.
Lenser Stuart Dryburgh takes full advantage of the widescreen to frame the gorgeous sunsets and beaches of Australia’s Gold Coast and Hinchinbrook Island. Production designer Barry Robison created the paper puppets and miniatures used in the lovely opening and end-credits sequences, although the latter would’ve benefited from a more imaginative song choice than U2’s “Beautiful Day.”
Pic’s souped-up, high-tech “Swiss Family Robinson” aesthetic is borne out by an alarming number of product placements: When Nim and Alexandra exchange emails, the Apple logos on their computers seem to glow in unison, as clear a sign as any that they’re destined to live happily ever after.