A summer in which the Eddie Murphy movie isn’t the worst comedy in the multiplex? “Imagine That.” This isn’t a great picture, or even an especially good one—it’s saccharine and formulaic, with a last act that goes off the rails on its way to the most predictable of endings. But compared to “Land of the Lost,” it’s at least tolerable. It has moments of real sweetness and—happily—lacks something, too: the grotesque special effects that have weighed down so many of Murphy’s recent vehicles. (Unless, of course, you count the star’s mugging and physical gyrations, which are a kind of special effect in themselves.)
The plot is that slenderest of reeds, the bonding of a workaholic dad and his estranged child. But it effects their reconciliation through cute, “magical” means. Murphy plays Evan, a Denver investment advisor whose devotion to his job has separated him from his wife (Nicole Ari Parker) and his seven-year old daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi). The kid’s having some trouble at school because of her obsession with a security blanket that she calls her “goo-gaa,” and uses to link her with her imaginary friends, a couple of princesses from a fantasy world of her own devising. When Evan discovers that the princesses can make absolutely certain predictions about financial matters, he employs his daughter’s “gift” of conversing with them to gain a leg up on his obnoxious colleague Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), with whom he’s competing for promotion to top dog in the firm. But in the process, of course, he finds out that his child is more important than any job, even if it means giving up being chosen as chief honcho by the office’s legendary new owner (Martin Sheen, on autopilot).
What’s bad about all this—aside from the fact that, in this era of financial meltdown, the whole investment-banking background comes across as passe and out-of-touch—is the sheer cookie-cutter nature of the parent-child re-bonding scenario, along with the rather goofy notion that Olivia’s imaginary pals are really able to offer unassailable predictions. And though Church is an adept comic actor enjoying a well-deserved career renaissance since “Sideways,” the material he’s given here is pretty pathetic. Not only is the whole “Indian Gibberish” aspect of the Whitefeather character dumb (and borderline offensive, until abruptly explained away at the end), but a long sequence in which the character tries to match Evan’s insight by having a blanket blessed by a tribal elder and then getting his young son (Daniel Polo) high on Red Bull to serve as his own “seer” is a gag based on something very close to child abuse. It would be hard for anyone to spin gold out of material like this, and Church, talented as he is, doesn’t. The last act—when Evan realizes what’s really important to him—is also misconceived, both in a scene in which he invades a sleepover to retrieve the blanket, and especially in another in which he drives recklessly to get to Olivia’s recital (the only thing missing is the helpful cop who usually intervenes in such cases).
But there are some good things to balance the scales a bit. Though Shahidi starts off a bit clumsily—director Karey Kirkpatrick, no great craftsman in any case, isn’t able to get really natural reactions from her in the early scenes—eventually she settles in as the connection between her and Murphy develops, and the relationship becomes genuinely endearing. As for the star, he doesn’t tone things down from his normal manic state, but the fact that he’s not acting against some phony effects—that both Evan and the audience have to imagine Olivia’s fantasy world rather than having it thrust into our faces—lends the movie a pleasantly modest character in this era of elephantine CGI extravaganzas.
The obvious target audience for “Imagine That” is young girls and their parents, and they certainly deserve an alternative at a time when most releases seem to be aimed at adolescent boys who just want to see things blow up. It’s an innocuous father-daughter movie—sweet and inoffensive—and reasonably well-made, as well as a distinct improvement on Murphy’s recent efforts. But in the last analysis it’s just okay, not the enchanting treat it’s meant to be.