June 12, 2009

Imagine That

I'm visiting my imaginary world
where I won the "Dreamgirls" Oscar

Grade: B –

Director: Karey Kirkpatrick

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Yara Shahidi, Thomas Haden Church, Nicole Ari Parker, and Martin Sheen

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Simple and formulaic, the unimaginatively-titled Imagine That is the latest in the glut of family-friendly fare that has crammed Eddie Murphy’s resume thus far this century. It is also another installment in the didactic subgenre of kiddie comedies that teaches the dubious lesson that a parent does not prove his/her worth until they forego professional and financial advancement in order to indulge their child’s whimsy. Still, there is a lingering level of complexity that manages to maintain one’s attention throughout.

Murphy plays Evan Danielson, a Denver financial consultant whose successful career is threatened by the arrival of a corporatized Native American named Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church, amusing if his shtick-filled caricature wasn’t offensive…“and how”). Also a divorcee, Evan struggles to balance his work ambitions with spending weekends with his pint-sized daughter, Olivia (Yara Shahidi), who wishes daddy would take more time to help her make pancakes and attend her school chorus recital.

Olivia also has a security blanket nicknamed “the Goo-Gaa,” which teleports her to an imaginary world full of dragons, princesses, and, curiously, France. It also apparently contains a crackerjack stock screener because Olivia becomes a clairvoyant about international business studs and duds whose picks help catapult Evan’s bona fides.

While saccharine, at least Imagine That has the guts to recognize and address the moral paradox rising out of the new-found affinity between its two lead characters, unlike, for instance, Rain Man. Director Karey Kirkpatrick casts just the right pall over Evan’s manic obsession with a soothsaying baby blanket and his relationship-of-convenience with Olivia. Evan must eventually confront the selfish motives driving his desire to spend more quality-time with his daughter. However, this being a Nickelodeon Movies production, all will end happily ever after, about the same time Martin Sheen arrives with faux-gravitas in tow.

Kirkpatrick also wisely allows the fantasy world to remains strictly, well, imaginary, seen strictly through the minds-eye of Evan and Olivia. And that is where the film’s strongest selling point rests: The capable rapport between Murphy and Shahidi. Once upon a time, Shahidi would have been cast as a Cosby kid, and her innate charm and talent is cute without becoming cloying. And, although Murphy is now relegated to regurgitating the same inflections seen and heard throughout his Shrek/Klumps series, the guy has a knack for conjuring alchemy with his child actor costars and throwing himself headlong into even the most benign of projects.

Still, this is the same guy who was once the edgiest standup comedian on the planet and, not so long ago, was a shoo-in for an Academy Award. Just imagine that.

Neil Morris

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