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Pretty much every movie has product placement in it. Really, it's unavoidable in many ways; how can you show a text message without the phone company's logo sneaking on screen? How can your characters go to a bar and not be surrounded by beer brands? How do cops identify a suspect's vehicle without giving a specific make and model of a car?
These unavoidable, unobtrusive placements are of no concern. And even the most blatant product placement can be used correctly: Michael Bay's "Transformers," for instance, had no illusions of being anything other than a crass commercial product or a glorified advertisement. Adam Sandler's products, from "Happy Gilmore's" Subway to "Click's" Bed, Bath and Beyond, have become part of the joke.
But sometimes you can tell a film has been bankrolled by its "advertisers." Bay's "The Island" -- whose shots lingered longer on Lincoln automobiles and Aquafina bottles than they did on Scarlett Johansson's curves -- comes to mind. But that movie has nothing on a 2008 release whose title will probably surprise you: "Nim's Island."
The opening minutes of "Nim's Island" promise a charming, visually inventive children's fantasy starring a plucky Abigail Breslin, a roguish Gerard Butler, and an obsessive-compulsive Jodie Foster. It quickly becomes a parade of the most obvious and unnecessary product placements I have ever seen.
Foster's very first scene shows her children's author run out of hand sanitizer. She calls a pharmacy. "Hello. Do you have PURELL? How many bottles? I'll take them all." A delivery boy comes by. "Just leave them on the stoop! I paid with a MASTERCARD!" She goops up her hands and sits at her APPLE computer, when she lets a phone call go to answering machine. It's her publisher, who says, "I can just picture you there, alone in your apartment, eating your PROGRESSO soup..." An absolutely masterful shot then shows Jodie's PANASONIC phone with a caller ID readout: RANDOM HOUSE, her character's publisher, and, naturally, the publisher of "Nim's Island," the hit book by Wendy Orr!
This scene ends around 10 minutes into the picture. That's when I started to take notes.
Here are all the products either mentioned by name or clearly identified on screen during the film's 95-minute running time:
National Geographic (4 times)
Apple (three different computers, 10 times)
Purell (7 times)
Random House (at least 3 times)
Progresso (8 times)
Avanti fitness equipment
World Book Encyclopedia
Jodie's addiction to Progresso and Purell are worked into the movie's plot. She actually asks a flight attendant if they have anything onboard "that can cook Progresso Soup." I am not kidding. When Jodie crashes a rowboat into the rocks and goes into the ocean, there are digital bottles of Purell and digital cans of Progresso floating in the water with her. Both Purell and World Book are thanked in the end credits, which also contain this line: Product Placement Consultant / Julie A. Keller. I hope she got a huge paycheck for this movie, because she did her job really, really well.
I suppose all this could be somewhat forgivable if it was done so the producers could afford to make a beautiful, thoughtful movie for kids, but it's all in service of a terrible script performed by actors who definitely should have known better. What was Jodie Foster thinking when she read the line, "Now, EXPEDIA told me this would be a commercial airliner!" Gerard Butler spends most of the movie talking to inanimate objects or to himself, since kids are apparently too stupid to figure out what's going on. Abigail Breslin and Foster spend much of the film reading e-mails aloud to the audience, and Breslin plays an 11-year-old with a singsong delivery that makes her sound 6 at the oldest. Then there's the boatload of fat, disgusting tourists who happen upon the titular island, and the film's one black person: A sassy-voiced 911 operator who all but says "OH SNAP!" to Jodie over the phone. What wonderful, stereotypical images for those kids in the audience!
This mess is directed by the team of Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, who previously wrote episodes of "L.A. Law" and "Earth2," the Kirsten Dunst tennis comedy "Wimbledon," and this summer's "Journey to the Center of the Earth," which I will not be adding to my Netflix queue.
I suppose "Nim's Island" was at least watchable, which is more than I could probably say for stuff like "Meet the Spartans" and "Disaster Movie." But those movies have no intention other than to be cheap opportunistic crap. "Nim's Island" employs big-name talent in an attempt to make an inspiring children's story, but ends up being a soup commercial. That helps make it a truly terrible film, certainly one of the worst I've seen all year. Please keep your kids far, far away from "Nim's Island."