“Imagine That” is a benevolent enough family dramedy, but it does a better job solidifying Eddie Murphy’s obsolescence as a big screen superstar. To watch Murphy drown his cracking comedic instincts in lousy kiddie comedies over the last ten years has been a depressing experience, but “Imagine That” goes one step further and renders Murphy boring. A painfully exaggerated concept trapped inside an especially bland movie, “Imagine That” removes the desire to see Eddie Murphy act onscreen ever again. I’d rather not watch him at all than see the man continue to torch his once imposing legacy of cinematic achievements.
An ambitious financial executive, Evan (Eddie Murphy) is fighting to maintain superiority at his firm, up against the encroaching talents of shady colleague Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), who abuses his Native American heritage to charm clients. Unable to lavish attention on his seven-year-old daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi), Evan objects when he’s forced to care for her for a week, desperate to keep his child away from his complicated work life.
Olivia, frequently conversing with imaginary friends (via a beloved blanket), offers assistance to her father by way of magical financial advice, allowing Evan the upper hand at work. Frantic to keep his daughter’s hot streak going, Evan plunges himself into Olivia’s fantasy world of dragons and princesses, finding their relationship flourishing through this bonding time. Whitefeather, sensing something magical is afoot, attempts to thwart Evan’s success with his own native mysticism.
In a professional move that’s not seen very often, animation director Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge”) has shimmied over to the realm of live-action cinema with “Imagine That.” I assume the hope was for Kirkpatrick to impart this tale of daydreams and fantasy with a spoonful of sparkly enchantment, lifting the heavy story off the ground with a little whimsy. However, all Kirkpatrick does is make matters worse. Clearly locked into directorial survival mode, there isn’t a trace of innovation coming from behind the camera.
Instead, Kirkpatrick glumly rolls along with the vacuous screenplay, capturing the lumbering plotting and coarse characterizations with a paint-by-numbers effort that drags the entire film to a complete stop. Visually, “Imagine That” is tuneless family filmmaking — Kirkpatrick shows more concern for camera focus than trying to brighten the proceedings with optical treats to match Evan’s growing mania. For a film that primarily deals with financial sector one-upmanship and single father discomfort, any thinking outside of the box would’ve done wonders for the film’s glum attitude.
Kirkpatrick also fails to lather up the actors to a fine rhythm of comedy. Murphy just looks lost with the material, bouncing back and forth between concern and berserk as the script tries to remain funny while tending to a needlessly complicated story. While grabbing a few laughs with expected Murphy improvs (a pancake breakfast melee between Olivia and Evan gives Murphy room to play), the performance unfortunately matches the inertia of the film. The actor feels strapped down, unable to fluidly maneuver in a fashion that would amplify the jokes and tame the saccharine elements of the writing.
“Imagine That” is a massive waste of Murphy’s time, successfully snuffing out the faintly flickering flame of life that’s always managed to remain ablaze inside the actor, even through the most idiotic of motion pictures. Still, at least Murphy isn’t in Church’s position, trapped playing a loud Native American cliche for laughs. It’s a tasteless role, slothfully performed by Church, aiming for dry sardonic edge within a film that has no use for it.
“Imagine That” is harmless enough, with the usual run of fecal matter gags to keep the little ones interested. There’s nothing here to break the routine, just a series of preheated emotions, Red Bull plugs, and the faint ick of irresponsible parenting shenanigans to maintain the brutal sensorial pressure. This isn’t Murphy’s worst hour, only his most deflated — a zombie effort from one of the screen’s fastest minds. At this point, there’s no room left on Murphy’s career coffin for another nail, so consider “Imagine That” the first shovelful of dirt.