Imagine That (PG) **½

 

Eddie Murphy's sweet, but not very funny.

Imagine That
Eddie Murphy, left, and Yara Shahidi are shown in a scene from, "Imagine That." Photo: AP.
 

By Roger Moore, The Orlando Sentinel

Eddie Murphy finds his Inner Cosby in Imagine That, a comedy that is long on kid-friendly charm even if it falls short in the funny department. He keeps the mugging to a minimum and smartly allows the moppet (Yara Shahidi) playing his daughter steal scene after scene of this tale of a father-daughter relationship in need of fixing.

Murphy plays Evan, a workaholic dad who has lost his wife (Nicole Ari Parker) by putting his job first. He so ignores their daughter Olivia that the ex wonders if he ever wanted kids in the first place. He did, he assures her. ``I just didn't know I'd be so bad at it.''

That line and the way Murphy plays it -- with conviction and disappointment -- sets the tone for the film, which highlights the tried-and-true maxim of family film: ``Listen to your children.''

Evan is a stock analyst fighting for his career against a rival named Johnny Whitefeather, a Native American who isn't above playing up the Wise Indian shtick, talking of the ''One Sky'' above us all, listening to ''The Dream Sparrow'' so that he can ''rain down prosperity. And how.'' Whitefeather is played with stereotypical glee by Thomas Haden Church, far and away the funniest thing in the movie.

When Evan is forced to take care of his sullen 7-year-old for a week, he sees the damage the divorce has done to the girl. She's withdrawn at school, hiding under her security blanket, communing with imaginary princesses and dodging imaginary dragons. When she talks about his workplace, calling this company ''crybabies'' and other firms ''kissing'' (signifying a merger), Evan gets curious about her world and tries to find a way into it.

There's real warmth to the father-daughter scenes, a cute narration that shows a child's view of Daddy's job. Director Karey Kirkpatrick wisely chose not to visualize the imaginary world and those who live in it, but Murphy gets to do little dances and sing little songs to appease his daughter's princesses. He has a lovely scene trying to teach the child to sing All You Need is Love.

But sweet as all that stuff is, the money moments are the war between the posing Native American mystic and Evan, who now uses childish metaphors to make his competing stock pitches to clients. Church gets the better of these exchanges because he has a much funnier character to play. Murphy's goofy, bug-eyed hysterics seem played out and overly familiar. Evan is a guy who sits too deep in Murphy's comfort zone to be surprising or funny.

The kid is a wonder, and a stellar supporting cast (Ronny Cox, Martin Sheen, Bruce McGill, Mel Harris) plays the reality of moments instead of reaching for broad laughs. But when you're making a family comedy, the star needs to go for those laughs. The Inner Cosby should have told Eddie that.

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Yara Shahidi, Thomas Haden Church, Nicole Ari Parker.

Director: Karey Kirkpatrick.

Screenwriters: Ed Solomon, Chris Matheson.

Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Ed Solomon.

A Paramount release. Running time: 105 minutes. Mild language, brief questionable behavior. Playing at area theaters.

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