Seal of child­hood ap­proval

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

IT is a hal­lowed con­ven­tion among film­mak­ers that women who write best­selling ro­man­tic nov­els or swash­buck­ling ad­ven­ture sto­ries must be shy, timid crea­tures in real life. The lustier and more ex­trav­a­gant their fic­tional con­ceits, the more re­pressed and reclu­sive the au­thors. Kath­leen Turner, the writer- ad­ven­turer in Ro­manc­ing the Stone , needed Michael Douglas to open her eyes; and Fran­cois Ozon, whose work, as a rule, is any­thing but stereo­typed, man­aged to make Char­lotte Ram­pling into a fussy and anx­ious English crime writer in Swim­ming Pool , that strangest of films about the lit­er­ary im­pulse.

None of this is meant to im­ply that Wendy Orr, the Aus­tralian au­thor who wrote the best­selling book on which Nim’s Is­land is based, is a blue­stock­ing writer cut off from the real world. For all I know she’s the most out­go­ing and prac­ti­cal wo­man. But she has cre­ated in Alexandra Rover ( Jodie Fos­ter) an­other of those des­per­ately shy and un­worldly fe­male au­thors that Hol­ly­wood is fond of mock­ing.

Alexandra, a spe­cial­ist in chil­dren’s ad­ven­ture sto­ries, suf­fers from acute ago­ra­pho­bia, which makes even her daily visit to the let­ter­box an or­deal to be bravely sur­mounted. She writes un­der the name of Alex Rover, lead­ing young read­ers to sup­pose that she’s a man and that the ex­ploits of her fic­tional hero, also called Alex Rover, are drawn from her ex­pe­ri­ence.

Among her ador­ing read­ers is Nim ( Abi­gail Bres­lin), a lit­tle girl liv­ing with her wid­owed fa­ther ( Ger­ard But­ler) on a tiny is­land in the South Seas. While Jack is study­ing ocean cur­rents, Nim is some­how man­ag­ing to ac­quire an ed­u­ca­tion and spend time with her strange pets, in­clud­ing lizards, birds and a seal: all of them, ap­par­ently, a match for Nim in cute­ness and intelligence. Life is never lonely or fright­en­ing in Nim’s is­land par­adise.

For­tu­nately, th­ese days even the re­motest places have ac­cess to the in­ter­net, and among the emails re­ceived in Nim’s jun­gle tree­house is one from Alex ad­dressed to Jack and seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion of some ge­o­log­i­cal de­tail for the next book she is writ­ing.

When Alex learns to her hor­ror that Nim is alone on the is­land ( Jack hav­ing ven­tured out to sea to study one of his ocean cur­rents), she con­quers her ago­ra­pho­bia, books a flight to Raro­tonga ( or wher­ever), and heads off from San Fran­cisco in search of the child.

It hardly mat­ters that ev­ery plot de­tail in this gen­er­ally lik­able film is an af­front to hu­man ra­tio­nal­ity. In swash­buck­ling ad­ven­ture sto­ries, re­al­is­tic nar­ra­tive de­vel­op­ment is not the point. But it mat­ters when the plot ab­sur­di­ties dis­tract us from the char­ac­ters; and there comes a time in Nim’s Is­land when we no longer much care what hap­pens to Nim, Alex and Jack. I think Alex was the first to for­feit my sym­pa­thy. Fos­ter, for most of her ca­reer, has taken us so close to a real world of pain and ap­pre­hen­sion that the role of comic farceuse seems too much like an ex­per­i­men­tal ca­reer move or an act of self­ind­ul­gence. But she’s a star, af­ter all, and enough of her warm, prickly spirit comes across to en­er­gise the role, even when we cease to be­lieve in it.

One can’t say as much for But­ler. That he has two roles — the real- life Jack and the spec­tral em­bod­i­ment of Alex Rover, the fic­tional ad­ven­turer, who ap­pears at odd mo­ments to keep Fos­ter’s spir­its up — doesn’t make him dou­bly con­vinc­ing. So thank good­ness for young Abi­gail. We know from Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine and, more re­cently, Def­i­nitely, Maybe that she is cute and smart enough to get away with any­thing, and the film be­longs to her. Chil­dren will love the scenes with her pets ( as I did).

Direc­tors Mark Levin and Jen­nifer Flack­ett are a hus­band and wife team who adapted the book and shot most of the film on Queens­land’s Gold Coast. The is­land set­tings ( pho­tographed by Stu­art Dry­burgh) are a con­stant plea­sure.

Some fun is had at the ex­pense of crass Aussie tourists and one sub­plot has a bunch of un­scrupu­lous tour pro­mot­ers de­ter­mined to con­vert Nim’s beloved is­land into a theme park. Nim has to re­pel them with ev­ery ruse at her com­mand and the re­sults are very funny.

The film is never short of ex­cite­ment or sur­prise; there are enough storms, tem­pests, avalanches, vol­ca­noes, un­der­wa­ter res­cues and hordes of fly­ing lizards to keep the story flow­ing. Ev­ery­thing has a naive and bois­ter­ous ex­u­ber­ance; what’s miss­ing is a touch of magic.

* * * I HAVE been an ad­mirer of Bruce Petty since I first knew him. For many years ( be­fore he headed to Melbourne) he was the daily car­toon­ist for this pa­per, where his witty and as­trin­gent draw­ings poked lovely fun at the world’s ve­nal­ity and pre­ten­sion. Petty was — and still is — a mas­ter of faux- naif clut­ter, the seem­ingly art­less squig­gle that re­veals a wealth of nu­ance.

His short film, Leisure , won the Os­car for best an­i­ma­tion in 1976; a num­ber of award- win­ning short films fol­lowed. Global Hay­wire , his first fea­ture- length film, com­bines an­i­ma­tion, in­ter­views, archival footage and con­tem­po­rary live ac­tion, of­ten in the same frame.

It is a deeply se­ri­ous, enor­mously am­bi­tious work and it grieves me to say that I found it a great dis­ap­point­ment.

Its sub­ject is noth­ing less than the par­lous state of the mod­ern world. And I’m quite ready to agree that the mod­ern world is in some­thing of a mess. In the fi­nal mo­ments of Global Hay­wire ( sub­ti­tled A Short His­tory of Planet Mal­func­tion ), a nar­ra­tor in­forms us that ‘‘ this story is told with car­toons be­cause, when it is told fac­tu­ally, no one be­lieves it’’.

But what is it, ex­actly, that no one be­lieves? Petty can­not be say­ing that no one be­lieves the planet is in deep trou­ble. Mil­lions be­lieve just that, with­out nec­es­sar­ily agree­ing, of course, on what the trou­ble is.

For the peo­ple in­ter­viewed in Global Hay­wire — lin­guis­tic philoso­pher Noam Chom­sky, nov­el­ist and es­say­ist Gore Vi­dal, Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Robert Fisk, An­glo- Pak­istani writer Tariq Ali, among oth­ers — the main trou­ble seems to be mod­ern neo- lib­eral eco­nomics, as if global warm­ing, Is­lamic fas­cism, in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism, Arab ha­tred of Jews, au­thor­i­tar­ian rule in China, the ex­is­tence of weapons of mass de­struc­tion and the eclipse of democ­racy in large parts of Asia and Africa ( most of which get scant at­ten­tion in Petty’s film) all spring from a sin­gle cause.

I’m all for polem­i­cal cin­ema. Michael Moore has re­vived the genre and given it fresh punch and re­spectabil­ity. Its es­sen­tial re­quire­ments are wit, pun­gency, dar­ing and, above all, an un­mis­tak­able clar­ity of pur­pose.

Global Hay­wire , frankly, is a mud­dle: vague, la­bo­ri­ous and con­trived. And at­tempts to en­liven it with de­vices such as the de­lib­er­a­tions of a com­mit­tee of in­quiry, sit­ting around a ta­ble with a car­toon fig­ure of Vir­ginia Woolf, are painfully silly. I have too much re­spect for the ac­tors in this cha­rade to men­tion their names. I only wish the film were bet­ter.

The irony is that the clev­er­ness of much of the im­agery serves only to dis­tract us from what­ever mes­sage the film is try­ing to con­vey. I’m still not sure what that mes­sage is.

Star turn: Abi­gail Bres­lin shines as a child with a trop­i­cal is­land in the South Seas for a playpen, and its wild in­hab­i­tants for her pets

And your point is? An­i­mated scene from Global Hay­wire

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