LOS ANGELES - 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 (box-office success can be an entirely different and often baffling phenomenon).
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 get 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 7-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.
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 previously has had success with the family films "Over the Hedge" and "Chicken Run" (which he wrote), and writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson ("Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"). The playful tone they achieve as Evan allows himself to enter Olivia's imaginary world always feels realistic.
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 little girl isn't so bad after all.
And as in that episode, "Imagine That" 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 against the obviously faux Native American Johnny Whitefeather (an amusingly self-serious Thomas Haden Church).
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. *