(2009)3.5Perry SeibertMost family films aim their lessons at children, but some actually have a thing or two for adults to learn. Imagine That is one of the latter. Eddie Murphy plays Evan Danielson, a highly successful financial analyst competing for a huge promotion against Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church) -- an up-and-coming investment whiz who peppers his presentations with mystical Native-American metaphors. Evan spends so much time focused on his work that he's separated from his wife, and he doesn't pay enough attention to his seven-year-old daughter, Olivia (Yara Shahidi). Because of all the domestic upheaval, Olivia carries her goo-gaa (a security blanket) with her everywhere, screaming at the top of her lungs whenever it's taken away. Olivia uses her goo-gaa to enter an imaginary world, and this pretending annoys her dad to no end -- that is, until one day when the three princesses whom she visits there provide some expert advice on what stocks are worth buying. At that point, in order to maintain a competitive edge at work, Evan begins spending more quality time with his daughter.
What sets Imagine That apart from the pack of indistinguishable family films is the brave choice to never show Olivia's fantasy kingdom. We don't see the princesses or the dragons, so the film stays grounded in the real world -- and that fits because the movie isn't about escaping into fantasy, it's about learning to listen to the people in your family. The movie subtly establishes the emotional insecurities that drove Olivia to create her pretend universe, and also why Evan would find solace in it himself when he begins losing self-confidence at his job. But don't let all this talk about serious stuff mislead you into thinking it isn't funny. Eddie Murphy maintains a healthy career in kid's movies because he knows how to direct his still-potent charisma at kids without patronizing them -- the guy's still a natural. There's a long scene in the middle of the movie where Evan and Olivia spend a great day together -- they play, make pancakes, and practice singing in order to help her prepare for a school assembly. This whole sequence lacks conflict or drama; it's just an extended example of really good parenting. And while that may not sound like the most compelling thing to watch, Murphy's charm makes it all seem like the most wonderful day a kid could ever have. Imagine That is by no means a landmark, but it is a remarkably pleasant surprise -- so few movies aimed for the whole family show an understanding of why it's actually healthy to pretend. That might be a more profound subject than most people expect from a movie like this, but, to paraphrase Mary Poppins, Eddie Murphy is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way.