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Imagine this: an Eddie Murphy film that works

THE words "Eddie Murphy family comedy" are enough to send shivers down the spine of any self-respecting film lover.

Between "Meet Dave," "The Haunted Mansion" and "Daddy Day Care," he doesn't exactly have the greatest track record with this genre, at least in terms of quality.

Which is what makes "Imagine That" such a pleasant surprise.

It's based on a clever premise and it makes good use of Murphy's comic strengths -- singing, dancing and creating myriad voices and personalities -- without letting him go overboard and getting too obnoxious. Its feel-good revelations are predictable, yes, but it only really turns sappy toward the very end.

And it offers an irresistible young co-star in newcomer Yara Shahidi, who very much holds her own as Murphy's daughter without being too cutesy or cloying.

Murphy stars as Evan Danielson, a Denver-based financial executive who barely has time for his seven-year-old, Olivia.

Estranged from his wife (Nicole Ari Parker), Evan is stuck watching Olivia for a few days but has no idea what to do with her, so he ignores her and instead focuses on his computer screens and constant phone calls. But she pays attention to everything he says and does -- and so do the princesses, Olivia's trio of imaginary friends.

Always right

Somehow, the princesses come up with advice on which stocks daddy should buy and sell -- and, somehow, they're always right. When Evan finally gives in and starts following their suggestions, he becomes a superstar at work -- and naturally, learns to loosen up at home and have a little fun with his daughter in the process.

"Imagine That" comes from director Karey Kirkpatrick, who's previously had success with the family films "Over the Hedge" and "Chicken Run." The playful tone they achieve as Evan allows himself to enter Olivia's imaginary world always feels realistic. While that may sound like a contradiction, "Imagine That" shows us a father and daughter running around an apartment, pretending they're in France, or the woods, or in front of a mountain, rather than relying on special effects to create such images for us.

Any parent -- anyone who's even baby-sat -- should be able to relate.

But "Imagine That" also shares a core concept with a classic episode of "The Simpsons," the one about daddy-daughter day from 1992. Homer is forced to spend time with Lisa on a Sunday when all he wants to do is watch football. When Lisa starts picking the games correctly and Homer starts winning money, he realizes that hanging out with his girl isn't so bad after all.

"Imagine That" also reaches a point where Olivia wonders whether her dad is really interested in her or merely how her prognostications can help him at work, where he's competing for a promotion.

What happens when he's pressured to choose between an important work meeting and Olivia's school concert is pretty obvious, but until then the movie is far more enjoyable than you would imagine from this talent.


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