Arguably the most innocuous pic of Eddie Murphy’s career to date, “Imagine That” is an undemandingly pleasant, mildly amusing fantasy in which nothing — not even those elements that actually define it as a fantasy — is ever allowed to get of hand. Arriving amid the summertime cavalcade of comedies suffused with raunchy tomfoolery, it may be greeted as a godsend by parents who want to spend an afternoon at the megaplex with their preteen daughters. It’s difficult to imagine, however, that this PG-rated Paramount/Nickelodeon presentation will draw many ticketbuyers outside that narrow (albeit potentially profitable) niche.
The latest in a seemingly endless line of sentimental laffers about stressed-for-success dads who reconnect with their neglected kids, “Imagine That” finds Murphy working in a very engaging but atypically understated mode. Indeed, even on those occasions when his character, Denver-based financial manager Evan Danielson, engages in some spirited comic riffing — silly voices, prancy dancing — his behavior seems no more manic than the everyday horseplay of a father interacting with a young child.
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Unfortunately, Evan has been too wrapped up in his job to spend much quality time with his young daughter, Olivia (Yara Shahidi). His estranged wife (Nicole Ari Parker) more or less forces their child on him for a week of bonding, but Evan finds little time in his overcrowded schedule to be a dutiful dad.
Little wonder, then, that Olivia seeks companionship with invisible playmates in an imaginary world. Evan is annoyed by Olivia’s propensity for make-believe — until the invisible playmates start to provide, through Olivia, exceptionally prescient investment advice.
Before long, Evan is a supernova at the investment firm where his soon-to-retire boss (Ronny Cox) is seeking a successor. The other candidate is Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), a self-styled mystic whose Zen-like affectations and faux-Native American gobbledygook barely disguise his ruthlessly competitive streak.
Making his live-action directing debut after scoring with “Over the Hedge,” helmer Karey Kirkpatrick (who also helped write the recent films of “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles”) takes a surprisingly naturalistic approach to the fantastical aspects of the script by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson. Rather than rely on CGI, animatronics or other f/x trickery, he presents Olivia’s invisible playmates as — well, invisible.
In fact, Evan (and the audience) must rely on Olivia to describe the specifics of her fantasy world; all the viewer ever gets to see or hear is father and daughter conversing and capering in Evans’ lavishly appointed apartment and a few outdoor locations.
For those who remain immune to the pic’s low-key charms, the extended segments of “Let’s Pretend” will seem between unremarkable and silly. But it’s just as likely that parents and their young offspring will be enchanted by those scenes in which the only special effect is the warm chemistry generated between sly pro Murphy and charming newcomer Shahidi.
Church’s transparent phony-baloney act as Whitefeather is the only thing here that approaches overstatement, but the actor is sufficiently deft to stay just this side of caricature. It’s not his fault that the character itself will be viewed by some as borderline offensive, an impression not entirely dispelled when his Native American roots are revealed as extremely shallow.
The filmmakers generate so much goodwill throughout “Imagine That” that it’s genuinely disappointing when they fall back on the crisis of conscience that develops when a protagonist must choose between attending an important business meeting or being in the audience when his child takes part in some activity that just happens to be scheduled at the same time.
Outstanding contributions by production designer William Arnold and lenser John Lindley go a long way toward establishing a believable workaday world where fathers and daughters can make their own magic with flights of imagination. Aptly chosen covers of Beatles songs are adroitly mixed into the soundtrack.