I just saw Nim’s Island tonight (I seem to be on a movies-aimed-at-children kick), and oh man, it was so close to truly awesome. The lead character, Nim, is fantastic. She’s daring and creative and very capable, but also very much a kid. When her father goes missing during a bad storm, she handily repairs the solar panels on her roof to restore power, takes care of herself and makes plans to (successfully) protect her island from invading tourists; she is also lonely, scared and desperate for reassurance from someone she trusts.
The story, on the other hand, is frequently absurd. Sometimes it is cleverly so, giving the plot humorous twists, but often it’s just unbelievable and stupid. There’s too much going on, too many coincidences and too many weird and tacked-on-feeling resolutions to narrative problems (boats do not work that way, and neither does mental illness).
But this is the stuff of which children’s films are so often made, and is fairly ignorable for anyone with a little practice in the suspension of disbelief.
Less ignorable are the skeevy race issues. The three main characters are white, which, y’know, is unfortunate, but also typical and unsurprising. There are several other minor characters with multiple lines who are also white, and a smaller number who aren’t. These characters have varying levels of intelligence, poise and skill, but the small-speaking-role characters of color don’t seem to come off as noticeably less worthy than the white ones. So that’s good.
But then, there are the action-adventure fantasy sequences! Nim’s favorite book series is about a character called Alex Rover (who is a bit reminiscent of Indiana Jones), who mostly seems to get into adventures where dark-skinned evil people try to kill him for no apparent reason. Except that they’re evil, I guess. They’re also stupid and cowardly, of course.
It’s a pretty clear callback to the treatment of the Other in the long tradition of pulp adventure novels, but I don’t think that’s any kind of excuse. The novels are shown to be written by a modern (white) woman who is concerned enough about accuracy to research volcanoes before tossing her fictional hero into one. It’s important to know whether the inside of an active volcano actually has red, bubbling lava – but if you need a bunch of villains in a desert, some stereotypical Evil Arabs will do just fine! Ugh.
Oh, also: fat people are absurd, and this is hilarious.
Nim is fabulous. The rest of the movie… Not so much. Which is a major bummer, because I’d really like to be able to wholeheartedly recommend a movie with such a fantastic girl protagonist.