You get one of these once a year or so, and most of Murphy’s recent career has been built on this sort thing; in concept it’s not too far off from his “Dr. Dolittle” films, but it’s better than most of those, and generally far better than it has any right to be.
Most movies like this tend to confuse the parents’ quest to connect with their children with a quest to find their own inner child. What you end up with are essentially childish characters that in no way represent anything that could be considered a real person, because they’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to be stand-in play pals for the kids they’re aiming at, and in the world of a lot of filmmakers and studio executives, immaturity is king of that demographic.
It’s with no small amount of wonder then that “Imagine That” eschews most of that in favor of focusing on its core story, that of a father reconnecting with his daughter. Mainly because Evan is thoroughly an adult, even when he’s acting like a kid.
A wealth manager at a small investment firm, Evan’s worked hard to be good at his job and given up just about everything else to stay that way. If he were a real person he’d probably be an unbelievable jerk that would be impossible to sympathize with. But in Murphy’s hands he’s actually quite charming and likeable, and for adults in the audience generally quite relatable even when he does resort to intentionally child-baiting shtick (which is more or less what the plot is about anyway).
And even when it does embrace its younger side it generally manages to get away with it. Part of that is because, even when he does go for the over-the-top kids’ film gold, Murphy never turns into his typical man-child, but stays an adult trying to reach a child from their perspective, and there is a real difference.
The other part is Thomas Haden Church. If Evan seems like he should be a jerk, Church’s Johnny Whitefeather is one, defiantly so. The new guy in town, Johnny is unabashedly gunning for Evan’s job in the kind of we’re-all-on-the-same-team manner that makes homicide sound briefly justifiable. Johnny is one of those characters that is usually so badly conceived as to be as offensive as he is annoying. Especially as Church would seem so obviously ill-cast as a Native American, trying to pass of his ancestry by way of an unbelievable mullet that it’s impossible not stare at whenever it’s on screen. In days gone by it would have been one of those horrible central casting decisions–like having Henry Brandon play Scar in “The Searchers”–that was wonderfully oblivious to its inherent irony. But in director Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”) and Church’s hands, it’s all part of the gag. You can’t help but stand mutely by, just as Evan does, as Johnny launches into an absurd pseudo-ethnic sales pitch, trying to figure out how on earth anyone could buy such horsesh*t. It’s rare that someone steals a scene out from under Eddie Murphy, but Church does so every minute he’s on screen.
None of which is quite to say that “Imagine That” is a movie for adults. It’s not really, but it wants to at least engage the adults who are dragged along to it, and it’s a great deal less obnoxious than most of its ilk. There are plenty of moments of Murphy mugging the way you would expect in an Eddie Murphy movie–especially a running gag about Evan explaining his financial choices in 6 year-old terms that goes on far too long–but nowhere near what you normally have to put up with.
It’s silly enough that its target audience should get a kick out of it (even if it lacks a lot of the visual wow a lot of kids’ films feel like they have to have) and its bearable for adults, and as far as family films go that’s a lot better than you can usually expect.