'Nim's Island," the story of a girl whose marine biologist mother is eaten by a whale so she and her scientist dad pack up and move to a remote volcanic island, is loads of fun. However --
Oh, heck, let's forget the "however" and just go with the fun.
Nim (Abigail Breslin, looking nothing like the nerdy cherub she played in "Little Miss Sunshine") and her dad (Gerard "300" Butler) spend two years sailing the globe after mom's mishap with a mammoth mammal before settling on an uninhabited island. Dad is happy studying single-celled life forms; Nim is, too, with her new playmates: Selkie the soccer-playing sea lion; Fred, her bearded dragon confidant; and Galileo, a pelican who knows the value of a good tool belt. A monthly supply ship provides them with the comforts of home. They have electricity -- somehow.
Yup, this is paradise. But paradise only makes for a good story when it's threatened, a threat Nim spells out early on when she tells her play pals -- and us -- "We want to keep it our own, secret island."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Here's how paradise unravels. Dad -- whom Nim variously calls Jack -- decides to spend a couple of nights at sea studying plankton. A storm rolls in, snaps the mast of his sailboat and strands him in the middle of a wet nowhere. Meanwhile, Nim has struck up an e-mail conversation with Alex Rover, hero of a wildly popular series of adventure books (the movie itself is based on Wendy Orr's 2001 novel). Actually, she's conversing, unbeknown, with Alexandra Rover, the "borderline agoraphobic" author of the wildly popular series who's researching her alter-ego's next adventure.
Rover, played with "Silence of the Lambs" edge by Jodie Foster, may write about outlandish adventure, but she hasn't set foot outside her San Francisco apartment in 16 weeks, lives on a diet of Progresso soup and is never an index-finger-plunge away from her beloved Purell hand sanitizer.
When Dad doesn't return from his plankton expedition, Nim pleads with Rover to come halfway across the world to help her.
At first, the thought is out of the question. But the writer's alter-ego, her psychological foil, her fictional creation Alex Rover (also played by Butler) prods her: "Touch the world, Alexandra."
"I don't want to touch the world," she argues back. "It's not sanitary."
But touch it she does, in a journey that has her taking every conceivable form of scary transportation, from a taxi to a puddle-jumper to a monsoon-rocked helicopter ride that has the terrified pilot shrieking, "This is bad!"
Meanwhile, Nim's island paradise becomes threatened by one of the worst plagues known to natural serenity: tourists. The pasty, overweight kind who consume lots of umbrella drinks.
Yes, there are some nitpicky "Howevers" about credulity (the electricity) and sappiness (Dad's vows to return to Nim). But they are just that: nitpicky. Foster's angst touches, humorously, the terrified traveler in many of us. Nim's idyllic island existence is every kid's dream, the tourists who "invade" the island are classic ugly Americans (though they're ugly Australians here) and Alex Rover's adventures all add up to give Nim a flair for escapist fun.
"Nim's Island" makes a good warm-up for this summer's much-anticipated return of Indiana Jones in his quest for the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.