Imagine That -- Film Review

In his latter-day career in family movies, Eddie Murphy has seen decidedly mixed results, but "Imagine That" is pretty much in his wheel-house. It plays to his strengths as a performer, giving him solo bits that do not diminish the ensemble work, and pairs him with a child actor who gives as good as she gets. The result is a much more playable film than recent efforts, though he will have to share the applause with young Yara Shahidi.

Workaholic dads who don't spend enough time with their children are familiar figures in movies, so "Imagine That" begins with a strong sense of been there, done that. What quickly yanks the story into a fresh realm in this screenplay by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson are a daughter's imaginary friends.

Evan Danielson (Murphy) is adroit at juggling multiple computer screens, mobile telephones and screaming clients while plowing through the average day as a financial adviser for a Denver investment firm. What he is not good at is listening to his 7-year-old daughter, Olivia (Shahidi).

That is, until one day, when Olivia gives him outstanding -- even highly prophetic -- advice on several stocks. Actually, the advise doesn't come from Olivia. It comes from her imaginary friends -- a queen and two princesses that live in a magical kingdom with a dragon. She reaches them by means of a security blanket she calls Goo-Gaa.

As the prognostications from Goo-Gaa prove more reliable than those from Warren Buffett, Evan finds himself learning the mysteries of the security blanket, performing childish dances and songs -- to placate the dragon, you understand -- and becoming a real pal to his delighted daughter. Of course, this sudden interest in Olivia has a merchantile motive that Evan must shed if he will truly learn a life lesson about spending quality time with his offspring. Rest assured, he will.

There is a sporadically funny subplot involving a company rival, a stock market shaman exuding pseudo-Native American wisdom played by Thomas Haden Church. Another less developed subplot deals with an estranged or possibly divorced -- this is never clarified -- wife played by lovely Nicole Ari Parker, presumably to demonstrate that Olivia isn't the only person Evan fails to listen to.

Director Karey Kirkpatrick has written any number of family and animated films ("Over the Hedge," "Chicken Run" and "James and the Giant Peach") so he knows how to entertain chidren while amusing adults. He uses Murphy much better than many past directors, not letting him run away with the film but forcing him to work with the story and his character so that he is a father who genuinely has to mature to where he can communicate with a young daughter.

That a child actor can all but walk away with a show is not really that surprising -- kids know how to act out -- but in Shahidi's case one senses a professional outlook and dedication rather than simple youthful innocence. She works beautifully with adult actors and seems to know how much is too much. She knows, in other words, where to draw the line between smart and cute. Production values are strong though not extraordinary as Denver makes a very comfy home for a family film.

Opens: Friday, June 12 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies present a di Bonaventura Pictures production

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Thomas Haden Church, Yara Shahidi, Nicole Ari Parker, Ronny Cox, Martin Sheen, DeRay Davis
Director: Karey Kirkpatrick
Screenwriters: Ed Solomon, Chris Matheson
Producers: Ed Solomon Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Executive producer: Ric Kidney
Director of photography: John Lindley
Production designer: William Arnold
Music: Mark Mancina
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editor: David Moritz
Rated PG, 107 minutes

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