One of the more pleasant aspects of "Nim's Island" is that it doesn't fit any of the known profiles for modern family movies: no hip pop-culture references aimed at mom and dad, no world-weary kids cracking wise, no tie-in soundtrack CD. There's only one fart, and it issues from a sea lion.
Another bonus is that 8- to 12-year-olds will have a good time, and you'll have a good time watching them have a good time. Otherwise, the film's an oddity - an engaging, slightly overcooked fantasy about a castaway-island girl and the agoraphobic San Francisco novelist who comes to her rescue.
The casting is heavyweight, though. Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine") plays the girl, 11-year-old Nim Rusoe, who lives with her marine biologist dad, Jack (Gerard Butler, of "300"), on a pristine South Pacific island, complete with a dormant (sort of) volcano. Nim's last name is one letter shy of Crusoe and so are her living quarters, a swank bamboo hut outfitted with lab equipment and wicked fast broadband access.
If that's a fantasy, it's an appealing one, and so is Nim's friendship with Selkie the sea lion, Galileo the pelican, and Fred the lizard, each animal given the necessary computer-generated personality assist (at the very least). When Jack doesn't return from a two-day expedition at sea, the worried girl reaches out by e-mail to the strapping hero of her favorite adventure book series, Alex Rover.
The catch is that Alex is actually the author of the books, is named Alexandra, and hasn't left her apartment in 16 weeks. Here we have Jodie Foster making a movie her kids can see (let's hope they weren't invited to the premiere of "The Brave One") as well as a rare foray into comedy. Alex is a neurasthenic basket case who talks to her own fictional character (played by Butler again, in Indiana Jones mode) and gets the willies when she has to step out to the mailbox. The idea that she'll somehow travel halfway around the planet to help Nim is too big for her to even comprehend.
"Nim's Island" is based on a children's book by Wendy Orr, and it makes the leap from page to screen somewhat awkwardly. The film cuts continually between Nim, holding the island against an assault by boobish cruise ship tourists; Jack, trying to keep his crippled boat from sinking in the open sea; and Alex, jumping from plane to helicopter to motorboat to dinghy in an effort to reach the girl. Each of the actors is performing solo, in other words, and this starts to play like a gimmick over the long haul.
It's a nice, dithery vacation for Foster, though, and Breslin is maturing into an actress of interestingly spacey grace. The moral of "Nim's Island" - articulated a number of times, as if a pop-quiz were coming up - is that we all need to be the heroes of our own lives, and that heroism takes many forms, from climbing a volcano to stepping out one's own front door. With luck, your kids will remember that as well as the farting sea lion.