Imagine That (review)

Abusing the Inner Child

Sometimes it’s a mystery to be puzzled out: What were the filmmakers thinking when they made this movie? The question is usually prompted by a film that appears to have so little respect for its audience, say, by cheating in its job in presenting us with a satisfying story. But even those movies do appear to be aimed at a particular subset of potential viewers — they simply fail those viewers. But there’s an even deeper mystery when it comes to Imagine That: Whom did the filmmakers think their audience would be? Did they actually have a particular audience in mind?
Because it seems to me that the ideal viewer of this oddly underpowered, disappointingly scattershot movie is a high-powered workaholic corporate executive who’s forgotten that he’s a parent and needs to pay a teeny, tiny bit of attention to his kids, and who would actually benefit from being told as much by a simplistic, uninvolving movie. I don’t know quite how large a demographic that is, but I’m relatively certain that it’s not a group that tends to go to the movies, nor a group that’s generally considered open to cinematic lecturing.

Cuz what we have here is a blandly tedious workplace “comedy” about Eddie Murphy’s (Meet Dave, Shrek the Third) Evan Danielson, who is some sort of financial genius, an investment hotshot at a Denver firm who makes gobs of money for his clients, and for the company. And suddenly he’s competing with Thomas Haden Church’s (Spider-Man 3, Idiocracy) embarrassing spectacle of a phony Native American in Johnny Whitefeather, whose pseudomystical fake-Indian philosophizing is tolerated because he, too, also makes tons of dough for everyone. And then Danielson discovers a new edge in his competition with Whitefeather when, inexplicably, his small daughter, Olivia (newcomer Yara Shahidi), suddenly starts making eerily accurate predictions about which companies to buy and which to sell. Well, actually, Olivia isn’t making these predictions herself — she’s merely passing on the wisdom of the three princesses and the queen in the imaginary fantasyland she visits in her head.

The film crawls to even get itself to that point — it has previously been busying itself with overly drawn-out setups introducing us to Evan, Johnny, and Olivia (she’s struggling with letting go of the security blanket that is her doorway to the imaginary world): if the film were determined to be as sketchy and cartoonish about all these characters as it is, it could have done so in half the time. But now things get truly inexplicable. From where does Olivia get her startlingly prescient predictions? There is no parallel realm of farseeing royalty and dangerous dragons that Olivia is genuinely visiting, and so when her father “joins” her there, he’s not actually traveling anywhere either. Now, his playacting with the child may well help him tap into an inner creativity that he begins to draw on later, but either Olivia is a bona fide Wall Street prodigy at age seven — which the movie does not appear to be suggesting — or she really is getting good financial intel from an outside source… which the movie does not appear to be suggesting either.

It’s not too nitpicky to be asking this, because clearly, Imagine That wants to be taken seriously as a family drama, at least on this side of things, wants us to believe in the power of imagination and in the love and support of family and in merely taking a break from intense work once in a while as a way to recharge. The problem is that it goes about that so damn poorly that it’s impossible to buy into any of it. Oh, and never mind the uncomfortable subtext about Evan suddenly being willing to spend time with his daughter as long as she’s useful to him professionally.

Even more weirdly, however, is how Imagine That does appear to be suggesting that it’s a fine time out for the whole family. But if adults will be bored by this, then the kids definitely will be. Not only is there precisely no depiction of Olivia’s dreamland of princesses and dragons — not that I’m suggesting there should be, but it would have at least served as a distraction for the kids — but there isn’t even any of the pandering to the baser instincts of little kids, as many “family” movies of recent vintage seem to feel is enough to keep them preoccupied. A kids’ movie without toilet and fart jokes is a glorious thing… but a kids’ movie has to have something of interest to children, and this one doesn’t. Unless they enjoy watching board meetings at financial firms.

It all could be much worse. To be fair, the script, by Ed Solomon (Levity, Charlie’s Angels) and Chris Matheson (the Bill & Ted movies) never gives any sort of stamp of approval to Whitefeather’s cultural colonialism: he’s held up as an object of ridicule precisely because of it. (But even the usually amusing Haden Church seems at a loss to bring anything beyond the dully obvious to the character.) Director Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge) coaxes some very nice moments indeed out of Murphy and Shahidi, as their father-daughter relationship warms up, and she is genuinely adorable and completely free of the disturbing trained-circus-performer aura that hangs over so many child actors. But it’s like watching someone else’s home movies: yeah, it’s passingly cute, but why should I care?

I wish I could say that Imagine That is some kind of wonderfully genre-busting movie that defies categorization. But that implies a conscious act of defiant creation, and a story that doesn’t need the conventions of genres to define it. Imagine That has no such eccentricity to fall back on. Without any real magic, it needed, at a minimum, the comfort of familiar constraints. It has neither.

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