Eddie Murphy keeps it simple, not stupid, in Imagine That, and the result is his most enjoyable family-friendly comedy in years. The movie is far from perfect but it's sincere, and remarkably restrained considering it stars one of the worst showboaters in movies.
Murphy plays Evan Danielson, one of those workaholic dads whose professional obsession has already cost him a wife. Evan can barely be distracted long enough to spend time with his adorable daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi), who retreats underneath a blue blanket — her Goo-Gaa — where she converses with imaginary friends.
Those make-believe princesses apparently have good business sense. Olivia begins passing along their stock trading predictions, with childish rationale making it seem like a girl's desperate grab for attention. But the tips come true, so Evan begins getting in touch with his inner child, playing Olivia's silly game to save his job.
It's easy to imagine what could go wrong with Imagine That, given Murphy's track record. He could expect director Karey Kirkpatrick to give him free rein to play wacky and be the only one laughing, or if denied simply go through the motions. Murphy could demand that the princesses be shown in special effects that would become a crutch, or in the worst scenario, dress in drag and play the princesses himself. Anything to hog the spotlight.
None of that occurs under Kirkpatrick's watch. Sure, Murphy gets a couple of scenes to publicly humiliate his character — a board room rant, a goofy dance routine — but those aren't the story's touchstones. Imagine That stays remarkably grounded for a yarn hinging upon pure imagination.
There's also a strange sense of humility for a Murphy vehicle. The comedian hands over the juiciest laughs to Thomas Haden Church as a business rival couching his lacking substance in bogus American Indian mysticism: "I looked into the great white fire that you call the Internet . . . " is one example of his posing. Murphy's reactions to such hogwash are funny enough.
On the down side, the shortage of conventional movie magic makes Imagine That overstay its welcome a bit, as Evan's communiques from the princesses become redundant. Still, Murphy does a nice job of briefly setting aside sour memories of Norbit, Meet Dave and The Haunted Mansion for a while. Imagine that.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.