Seal of childhood approval
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