Imagine That

Imagine That. Nickelodeon Movies 2009.

Before watching the movie:

Eddie Murphy’s work since the late 90s has a reputation for not being good, at least when it comes to his live-action vehicles or possibly anything other than the Shrek franchise. If anyone liked The Nutty Professor, nobody really cared for what came after, including the two sequels. Eddie Murphy stopped being funny on screen around the time Will Smith became a movie star somehow.

This movie is a Nickelodeon production, so it’s clearly aimed directly at children and families, but other than children-oriented movies getting ignored, I don’t see anything that would indicate why it’s not considered a Good Eddie Murphy Movie. I don’t see any warning signs yet.

After watching the movie:

Evan Danielson has been his firm’s best investment manager for the eight years he’s worked there, but his status as ruler of the roost has been ruffled by new hire Johnny Whitefeather, who coats his new, disruptive ideas with a thick layer of Indian-sounding mumbo-jumbo. Evan’s daughter Olivia, staying with him for a week on a trial joint-custody basis, overhears some trade plans Evan is considering and tells him that her imaginary friends the Princesses don’t agree, and their recommendations turn out to be sound, if for childlike reasons. When Evan has an outburst in front of clients Whitefeather is poaching from him in a meeting that Olivia inadvertently ruined his notes for, he makes flippant, childish trade recommendations based on the condition the notes are in, and when he expects his boss to fire him for it, his boss reveals that many of those recommendations were good for reasons that eerily sound like the comments he made. Evan begins playing pretend with Olivia in order to get the Princesses’ recommendations on all his decisions and in the process, starts being more present for her. But the pressure at work reaches an all-time high just as Evan’s week with Olivia comes to an end, and Whitefeather is sniffing around for Evan’s secret to his new strategy.

The summary I read for this movie strongly implied that Olivia’s imaginary world was real, and Evan was going to physically enter it. What actually happens is he reluctantly lets go of his inhibitions as he lets her guide him through the world she’s made up for herself, that he can’t see because it’s all in her head. I was prepared to enjoy a high-magic story, but got a much more realistic story that only suggests that it’s possible that what happened was real magic, but may just as well have been coincidence. And that’s fine. The story that was presented was an adorable one, and quite enjoyable on its own merit. Maybe the story isn’t big enough for a star like Eddie Murphy, maybe it didn’t have a unique enough take on the message the story is conveying, but it’s a very worthwhile feel-good movie about a father learning to value and support his daughter. It had big expectations to meet and it was a little flatter than it could have been, but it works fine.

I was certain from the moment we met Whitefeather that there was no way a guy we’re supposed to see as the villain who leans heavily on Indian stereotypes to smugly build his brand could in any way actually be of the First Peoples, especially since he’s played by Thomas Haden Church, one of the whitest guys in Hollywood. I was a little thrown off by when he identified a ritual that at least for the purposes of the story is real, which seemed to work a little bit when he used it, but in the end I was right. Like everything else being a little flatter than it could be, the reveal was somehow not as satisfying as I expected. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t surprising to me, or maybe it’s because there was no humiliation to his exposure. He just dropped the act and calmly walked out to no doubt peddle some different snake oil somewhere else.

I don’t see any justification for the hate this movie seems to have gotten when it came out. It’s not a big blockbuster, it’s not Oscar Bait, but it’s entirely decent. I think critics wanted it to be something it wasn’t trying to be, and maybe the marketing helped make those expectations. For once, Eddie Murphy can be the most grounded person in the room, and that’s okay.

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