Certain stars clearly don't care about their long-term entertainment legacy. For Robin Williams, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and especially Eddie Murphy, how they will be remembered artistically is a lot less important than earning that divorce/paternity/lawsuit/greed-induced paycheck. Take the latest from former SNL superstar Murphy -- Imagine That. Aimed directly at the grade school demographic (it's a co-production with Universal affiliate Nickelodeon), this story of a workaholic father who's desperate to find a way to reconnect with his distant daughter isn't particularly awful. It's definitely not Norbit or Daddy Day Care. But within this otherwise formulaic family film are elements so atrocious that they remove any heart Murphy manages to mine.
For Evan Danielson (Murphy), life centers solely on work. As a financial advisor for major companies and clients, he must stay ahead of the competition both outside and within the firm. His chief competition is the newly hired Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church). Playing up his Native American connections, the rival undermines Evan's confidence and when their boss Tom Stevens (Ronny Cox) suggests he will be stepping down, the race to replace him is on. Unfortunately, our hero's plans are complicated by the arrival of his daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi). Still lost in a world of imaginary friends and security blankets, she tries her dad's nerves -- that is, until her fantasy games start accurately predicting fiscal trends. Soon, Evan is desperate for Olivia's help, hoping it will land him the big promotion. Article continues below
Imagine That is indicative of the current trend in family films. Instead of dealing with the subject of part-time parents who need to deal with the full-time needs of their lost and lonely children, the screenplay scrapes together a few unfortunate gimmicks and then gives the heavy narrative lifting over to such storytelling stunts. Here, Murphy's Evan Danielson is the pitch-perfect example of upwardly mobile mindlessness. He is so disconnected from reality that instead of challenging the faux-Squanto of Church's unbearable Native American, he lets the clear con job pass. Then, like the episode of The Simpsons where Homer covets Lisa's gift for accurately picking football winners, Evan "rediscovers" his child and spends the next 45 minutes mugging like Jerry Lewis after 20 Jolt Colas.
Sure, this will entertain an audience who is already used to Murphy marginalizing his talent for the sake of a savings account. But the lack of insight offered stymies what could have been a touching father/child fable. Instead of having his lead sing and dance like a dervish, Over the Hedge director Karey Kilpatrick should have insisted the subject matter take a more mature turn. Instead of dead jokes and sloppy slapstick (including the mandatory sequence in a Chuck E. Cheese-style ball pit), Imagine That could have used the notion of childhood fears and the way kids handle such issues as a means of making a more clever, and concrete statement. Unfortunately, this is pap pandering for the always undemanding masses. We don't even get to see the "kingdom" Evan and his daughter play in (at least the thematically similar Bedtime Stories gave us that). It's all reference and no reveal.
Still, Murphy does some decent work here, his flustered father bit earning a few marginal laughs. And while she's very bratty and annoying at first, little Miss Shahidi also draws our attention. Of course, everything they do is dumped on by a woefully inept and out-of-place Church as every bad "Injun" stereotype taken to tacky New Age extremes. He is so obnoxious and unfunny that Imagine That literally dies every time he is onscreen. Luckily, Murphy is around to try and bring things back to life. He does so, barely.