The formula for entertaining kids is so simple that any idiot can do it, and many, many have. You have your actors make funny faces, put in lots of bright colors, make sure people fall down a lot, and include a message at the end that makes the kids and their parents feel like some narrative purpose has achieved. But instead of any of that, Imagine That opts for a strait-laced Eddie Murphy, an imaginary realm that the audience can't see, and a plot that's entirely about finance. The poor little girl's imaginary friends are so boring that they give stock tips.
It's hard to figure out the hellish pitch meeting that led to Imagine That, which takes all the tropes of modern family movies-- the distracted dad, the cheeky kid, the montage of goofy parent-child bonding--and glumly goes through the motions. If anything the movie offers the final bit of evidence that Murphy will do anything for a paycheck, taking on a role that requires of him a minimum of silliness, but mostly a willingness to be slightly mean to his daughter until a third-act revelation proves to him what's important in life. He's paired with adorable newcomer Yara Shahidi as his daughter Olivia, and while the two of them have great chemistry as they delve into Olivia's imaginary world, nothing in Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson's script rewards the work they're putting into it.
It's especially bizarre how much of the movie takes place at Murphy's character Evan's job, explaining the nature of all the stocks he's picking for his clients and exploring the rivalry between Evan and Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), a faux Native American whose awful weave pegs him as the bad guy even before his smarmy attitude does. Evan is struggling to impress the big boss (Martin Sheen), until Olivia starts giving him advice on stocks based on the tips from her imaginary princess friends. Soon Evan is as wrapped up in Olivia's games as she is, singing and dancing to appease the invisible dragon and rubbing her magical blanket on his face. But can he really get away with using his daughter's brain as his own? And can he ever realize the true nature of fatherhood while he uses his daughter to get ahead at work?
You know where this is going, and while Karey Kirkpatrick (making his live-action debut after 2006's Over the Hedge) directs things with an easy flow, he never challenges either his actors or the audience to find something even vaguely unfamiliar. Stories about fathers reconnecting with their children are so common that there has to be something new to keep you watching, but Imagine That can't even get good stuff out of Murphy, who seems intent on acting only as silly as any father playing with his daughter would be. Maybe after his daring dramatic work in Dreamgirls didn't result in an Oscar, Murphy simply isn't willing to be the funnyman anymore.
The best that can be said for Imagine That is that it's inoffensive (even if Haden Church's Whitefeather comes pretty close), though kids will surely grow restless with all the shots of stock graphs and chatter about oil pipelines in the Middle East. If the idea was to teach kids about the stock market, Imagine That is simply poorly placed in the middle of a stock slump. But the movie really seems to be trying to entertain us, to truly warm our hearts, even as every bit of it feels calculated to draw in family audiences who don't know better.