Imagine That – Fantasy Film Review

Imagine That (2009)Huh, imagine that: I actually discovered a certain amount of charm within IMAGINE THAT. Not a lot, but some. It’s not getting stellar reviews, to say the least, but I can say that for the most part the filmmakers involved knew what it was they were making — a simple, light-hearted children’s film — and unlike those involved with BEDTIME STORIES they didn’t pretend the movie was anything else. For that they earn a modicum of respect from yours truly. Could they have worked harder on the plot and characters so that the film could better appeal to those older than ten? You betcha, but at least it didn’t turn off the wee ones (those in the theater I saw it in were happy).
IMAGINE THAT involves imagination and a bit of fantasy, and that’s why we’re looking at here. In it we have a husband & wife (Eddie Murphy, Nicole Ari Parker) who have recently gone through an amicable divorce, but their daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi) is undoubtedly struggling with the breakup and apparently seeks solace in a special blanket — which helps her communicate with an imaginary queen and three princesses. Or are they real in some way? Well, ultimately you’ll have to decide for yourself, but Murphy’s character, Evan, winds up believing.
Evan’s a very successful financial forecaster who’s suddenly lost confidence in his abilities and begins going through a slump. His bosses decide to bring on an up-and-comer named Mr. Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church) — a supposed Native American — to shake things up, generate some competition, and get the ol’ creative juices flowing again. And at a crucial point in the competition Evan has to take Olivia for a week while struggling to make some important buy/sell suggestions for a big client. Long story short, Olivia’s “imaginary” friends wind up telling Evan — through Olivia — that his choices are wrong and that he should be going with Yada, yada, yada.
Well, of course, the information turns out to be right, as does some follow-up info, so Evan decides he needs to learn the secret and use it to his advantage. Soon he’s hooked on the process almost as if it was a drug, and he can’t make a decision without going through Olivia’s blanket & friends.
Along the way we’re supposed to learn lessons about love, faith, loyalty, trust, confidence, honesty, and responsibility. I suppose these are nice lessons to learn and maybe if one is, oh, eight or so, one might walk away feeling that they got something out of this little picture. But then again, the five to ten crowd is IMAGINE THAT’s target audience, so maybe – just maybe – it lands on its mark.
Now, I have to confess that I’m not a huge Eddie Murphy fan. He’s usually too busy being, well, Eddie Murphy, instead of truly allowing himself to be absorbed into the whole of the character that he’s supposed to be portraying. And for the most part the same can be said for his performance in IMAGINE THAT. But there are moments in which he shows that he can be real when he wants to. Someday I’d like to see him play a serious villain. I mean, a serious villain.
Thomas Haden Church was rather annoying as Whitefeather, but through no real fault of his own. His character was written that way. And though this was done purposefully, I couldn’t make up my mind whether I was annoyed by the character in the manner I was supposed to be, or just annoyed by him, period. I think I wound up coming down on the latter. But I wasn’t alone; one potential ueber client (Martin Sheen in a cameo) finally said out loud what I was thinking through entire film.
Ah, but now we come to the magic. If you’re looking for a reason to sit through IMAGIN THAT with your young child or children, this is it as far as I’m concerned: Yara Shahidi. Generally speaking, I find the average young actor trying to play things one of two main ways: I’m much-wiser-and-more-worldly-than-my-years, or I’m-cooler-smarter-and-more-wise-cracking-than-the-adult-schmucks-around-me. There was none of that in little Miss Shahidi. I felt her to be an incredibly charming bit of fresh air. I was ready to adopt her 20 minutes into the film. She seems to instinctively know what works.
The script was written by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson (BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE and BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY). The BILL & TED ventures may not have been Shakespearean in nature either; however, there was a certain wild aspect to them that was somewhat appealing. One of the problems with IMAGINE THAT is the more by-the-numbers feel it has. You can almost see the writers working with the paneling feature in Final Draft (a commonly used screenwriting program). It lacked truth, or a spark, or a sense of anything original. Bits seemed plugged into the layout regardless of whether they truly fit or not.
I was also troubled by issues such as the placement of a Beatles song titled “Nowhere Man” because at that point in the film our one-time nowhere man was going somewhere under his own power. He just didn’t quite know it yet; still, it was happening. And there were other things, like Evan freezing up in a dinner meeting and using the excuse of wanting to hit the restroom so he can drive across town (Denver’s not a small city) to consult Olivia’s “imaginary” friends through her blanket. There are several other scenes and jokes that play badly or don’t make sense (think birthday party scene), but you get the idea.
The direction by Karey Kirkpatrick (OVER THE HEDGE, the upcoming CAPTAIN ABDUL’S PIRATE SCHOOL) didn’t seem quite confident or edgy enough. But he did see to it that most of his characters were likeable and that the pacing was kept brisk and relatively bouncy, just the sort of qualities that should keep a young audience interested. Kirkpatrick is relatively new to directing. He built a career as a screenwriter of youth oriented films like THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and CHICKEN RUN.
Mr. Kirkpatrick’s choice in hiring Mark Mancina as the film’s composer was an appropriate one; Mr. Mancina’s music added to the buoyancy of the piece instead of lagging behind and simply acting as filler, as I’ve seen in other films made in the nature of this one, such the aforementioned BEDTIME STORIES. In fact, though these two films share a commonality, I would place IMAGIN THAT above BEDTIME STORIES. It’s a little less ludicrous and more likeable. And of course there’s the charm of Miss Shahidi, which accounts for a lot of the likeability.
At one point in the film Mr. Whitefeather explains that “Venison is a savory meat.” Perhaps so, but the movie isn’t. It’s a pleasant, quite safe offering for little ones, but as he is also fond of saying, in the end “it ain’t nothin’ but a thing.”

Imagine That (2009)
Eddie Murphy (holding the "magic" blanket) and Yara Shahidi

IMAGINE THAT (Paramount Pictures, 2009; 107 min.) Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick. Screenplay by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson. Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ed Solomon. Executive produced by Ric Kidney. Cinematography by John Lindley. Production Design by William Arnold. Costumes by Ruth E. Carter. Visual Effects Supervision by Jamie Dixon. Edited By David Moritz. Original Music by Mark Mancina. Cast: Eddie Murphy, Thomas Haden Church, Yara Shahidi, Nicole Ari Parker, DeRay Davis, Vanessa Williams, Ronny Cox, James Patrick Stewart, Mel Harris, Tim Sharp, and Martin Sheen. MPAA Rating: PG for some mild language and brief questionable behavior.

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