The kid’s live-action adventure landscape has dimmed in recent years, and I think the culprit is that these kinds of tales are sometimes better fleshed out over the course of a eight-to-ten-episode season as opposed to a 90-minute film. While Nim’s Island — adapted from the Wendy Orr novel of the same name — and its large-scale is hampered in some ways by its brief runtime, the film no less has a Swiss Family Robinson quality with its themes of self-reliance and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, even when/if it’s nerve-wracking.
The titular character is a resourceful 11-year-old girl (Abigail Breslin), who has grown up on a South Pacific Island with her marine biologist father, Jack (Gerard Butler), her only guardian following the death of her mother. The exotic locale has exactly two inhabitants, but those looking to colonize the island into a Margaritaville resort or something comparable are encroaching on the father-and-daughter’s slice of paradise.
One day, Jack takes their boat for a two-day mission en route to find a new species of plankton named for his daughter. When he disappears, Nim is left alone to try and survive storms and other calamities on the island, all while trying to find her dad. Out of pure desperation, she writes via email to Alex Rover, the adventurer character in her favorite book series (Nim’s dad corresponds with “him” over email, so this isn’t a case where she writes to a random address on the back-pages of a novel and gets a lucky response). Unbeknownst to Nim, Alex Rover is really Alexandra (Jodie Foster), a reclusive novelist and germaphobe who rush delivers a store’s entire supply of hand sanitizer to her home.
While Jack battles a cyclone and a lack of communication with Nim, his daughter keeps hope alive by trying to salvage their home during the storm, making the rest of the island appear astray (so as to distract the “pirates” who have come to steal it), and heed advice from Alexandra, who tries to act as if she is Alex Rover. Alexandra’s imagination brings Alex Rover (also Butler) to life, and eventually, encourages her to emerge from her apartment, travel to Nim’s island, and help her little pen pal.
Nim’s Island has laudable messages about finding the courage that exists in all of us. Both Nim and Alexandra have different plights that require them to be brave in times of duress, and the quartet of screenwriters (including directors Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin) devote energy to developing both storylines until they converge. While Foster is slightly out of her element playing a nebbish protagonist, as opposed to a usually strong hero, Breslin shines with a winsome performance. Some of Nim’s Island most winning sequences come when Breslin’s Nim is left to her own devices. She’s not always perfect too. At one point, she inadvertently causes a volcano to erupt. She’s still just a kid.
Nim’s Island has gone on to have a pretty muted reputation, despite its star power. Its briskly paced runtime doesn’t necessarily allow for some of its greater themes and interpersonal character dynamics to transcend beyond general predictability. However, it’s consistently entertaining, and fails to succumb to its beach read tendencies that lurk under the surface of its story. Breslin makes this one a big winner, one deserving of more play in local libraries and maybe even a second run in theaters.
NOTE: Nim’s Island is available to rent on multiple platforms.
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster, and Gerard Butler. Directed by: Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!