June 11, 2009

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Imagine That (PG)
A dad learns to bond with his 7-year-old daughter in part because of her magical stock-picking blankey in Imagine That, a surprisingly enjoyable Eddie Murphy family film.

Evan Danielson (Murphy) is a financial analyst who is adept at helping his corporate and wealthy-individual clients make big money in the market. He’s not so adept when it comes to dealing with his 7-year-old daughter, Olivia (Yara Shadhidi). Since he and her mom (Nicole Ari Parker) have separated, Olivia has spent some time with Evan but a lot of it has been of the unfun variety — with him too busy working to play. Add to that the Goo-Gaa situation, Olivia’s name for the security blanket that she refuses to be without. When Evan tries to get her to give it up on the playground, she screams until she gets the purple blanket back.

Though he doesn’t have much time for her imaginings, Evan does learn that Olivia’s Goo-Gaa isn’t just a blanket, it’s the doorway to a whole magical world full of princesses and dragons. While staying with Evan, Olivia talks to these princesses about some of the companies he’s considering for a big client’s investment. She pesters him with the information that the princesses don’t like some of the companies because they’re broken. Later, she be-glitters his report notes with the information that other companies are going to get married and another company is going to be caught with its pants down and an underwear full of doody.

Throughout the course of the day, Evan is astounded to learn that the “broken” telecom companies have just lost some key fiber optic cables, the “married” companies are near merger and the unfortunate pantsless company is about to be investigated by the Feds and their books, as Evan’s boss tells him, are full of, well, poo.

Could it be that the secret to financial success is spending more time playing in his daughter’s imaginary world? Evan is very willing to consider that option, particularly now that coworker Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church) is winning clients away from Evan with his faux-Native American symbolism.

Not all of Murphy’s family-friendly goofing has been successful, but his stretchable face and changeable vocal inflections work with the comedy here. There are enough poop-moments, wacky voices and pratfalls to get the kids laughing and keep them laughing most of the time. A few of Murphy’s scenes with Shadhidi are even reminiscent of the chemistry that Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show had with his onscreen children or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has had with some of the kids in his movies. These scenes are natural and you get the sense that both the young and adult actors (particularly the adult actors) are comfortable enough to really be goofy. That kind of silliness gets what appear to be real smiles from the onscreen children and real laughs from the ones in the audience.

For grownups, the at-work competition between Johnny Whitefeather and Evan makes for surprisingly funny sitcom moments. Church’s character is silly enough that the kids can laugh at his goofiness even as adults can laugh at the recognition of his kind of corporate-speak-using suck-up.

And Imagine That has heart — just enough to make you feel like you’re dealing with real people but not so much that it drowns out all that hard-won genuineness with sticky saccharine moments. Like the best of the 1980 sitcoms, this movie really does feel like a comedy that everybody can laugh at together. B-

Rated PG for some mild language and brief questionable behavior. Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and written by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, Imagine That is an hour and 47 minutes long and opens in wide release on Friday, June 12. It is distributed by Paramount Pictures.