Shrugging off W.C. Fields' advice about not working with children and animals, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett follow up their appealing tween romance Little Manhattan with the anemic tween action-adventure Nim's Island.
Abigail Breslin is Nim, a resourceful 11-year-old Robin Crusoe who flourishes on a remote South Pacific isle with her father, Jack (Gerard Butler), a marine biologist. Lonely? Not Nim, whose menagerie includes a cuddly sea lion, a chatty bearded dragon, and an ESP-gifted pelican. Equipped with satellite dishes, her island has full wireless Internet and Skype capabilities.
The film scores points for its enticing scenery - waves lapping at the shore of Australia's verdant Gold Coast - which is storybook-lush. It scores again as a family-friendly tale that focuses not on a young girl's body but rather on her strength and spirit. And it's magic when it shows how reading transports the reader, inspiring her to be her own hero.
The story, though - more accurately, the three parallel stories - has the unfortunate effect of diluting its assets. For much of the film, Nim is alone on the island, with her father marooned at sea. During this stretch, Nim's only human connection is via e-mail with agoraphobic adventure novelist Alex Rover (Jodie Foster).
Thus we have Nim confiding in her animals, Jack beseeching the weather gods, and Alex talking to her computer screen. While this might be an accurate representation of how modern technology isolates us as it connects us, it is near-fatal to the film. Here are three fine actors each performing in a vacuum.
Breslin, so memorable in Little Miss Sunshine, suffers the most. Skilled and reactive with humans, she doesn't quite muster the same engagement with her finned and flippered costars here. Nor does she have the nimble physicality of AnnaSophia Robb (or the young Jodie Foster) that might have anchored her performance.
The adult Foster is many things, but slapstick comedian is not one of them. Give her this: As an adventure writer too frightened to leave her house, she gamely pratfalls, splatfalls and slipsides, all the while with a rictus grin.
Of Butler, who stole hearts as the Phantom of the Opera and made them race as King Leonidas in 300, I confess that his charms elude me. To those in his legion of female fans who have e-mailed asking whether he takes his shirt off (he plays both Nim's father and the Indy Jones-ish fiction hero she longs for), I didn't notice.
Keep your shirts on, ladies. You don't need to rent a child to see this mildly diverting, if middling, adventure.
Nim's Island **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett. Distributed by 20th Century Fox. With Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (action/adventure, mild profanity)
Showing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/