Eddie Murphy played a meaty role in the Oscar-winning musical Dreamgirls. It was a far cry from The Nutty Professor, Daddy Day Care or Dr. Doolittle.

Most people, still shuddering from the terrible Norbit or Meet Dave, forget that Murphy can and has stepped past his manic comedy roles to play more mature parts. In Imagine That, Murphy portrays a father looking for a clue on how to reconnect with his daughter. Just in time for Father's Day, this movie is a surprisingly nuanced look at the joys of fatherhood and has more in common with Dreamgirls than with his sillier comedies.

Murphy plays Evan, a high-flying financial wizard at a snazzy, money management firm in a high-rise downtown. He's the company's top agent, but his position is being threatened by a new rising star, Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church). The Native American's mumbo jumbo wins over all but the most skeptical and drives Evan crazy. Estranged from his wife Trish, (Nicole Ari Parker), Evan has one daughter, Olivia (Yara Shahidi). Although he remains besotted by her, Evan is baffled and intimidated by the one thing he doesn't understand:  a little girl.

Olivia lives primarily in an imaginary world, much to the concern of her teacher and mother. Putting a little blanket over her head, which she calls a Goo-Ga, she whispers secrets to her imaginary friends for hours. They are the princesses Koopeta, Moppeta and Soppeta and are more real to her than her classmates. She relays messages from her invisible friends to anyone who will listen. Her busy father never listens. But when the princesses' stock picks prove preternaturally accurate, Evan starts to pay attention. He even pretends to enter the magical kingdom with Olivia in order to get tips from the princesses. As he relies more and more on Olivia's friends, he loses track of his daughter's needs. What will he put first? His career or Olivia's wellbeing?

The biggest problem with this movie is the princesses. The magic of their advance knowledge is never explained. Everything else about this movie is grounded in a sweet reality that the mystical princesses seem patched in from some other movie.

As Olivia,Yara Shahidi is a precocious nine year old who lights up the screen. Already in demand, she plays opposite Angelina Jolie in the upcoming film Salt and appears in the new ABC show In the Motherhood. The child shines with innocence, imagination and vulnerability.  She and Murphy make a good team, building humor and chemistry between them.

Shahidi said Murphy kept the atmosphere light on set. "Even during the scenes, he's goofy. He's funny." However, their connection runs deeper. Murphy is not afraid to let his character be unlikable in the beginning of the film, and Evan makes a wonderful transition as the movie progresses. It's easy to believe they're father and daughter.

Secondary characters are also well done. Olivia's mother is kind and accepting. DeDray Davis plays a family friend, a former sports star turned wise counselor who's comfortable enough with his manhood to allow his daughter to put makeup on his face. Martin Sheen makes a cameo as a powerful CEO who dislikes yes-men. Even a few real-life NBA basketball players pop up.

Murphy is funny at places, but as a father trying to make his daughter laugh, and not as a crass man in a fat suit. He reigns in that trademark Eddie Murphy humor to make the movie appropriate for children. However, this is not a children's movie. While children will enjoy many parts of it, it's made to connect with any adult who has ever chosen a meeting over a school play or a late night with the computer over building a fort.

There's also a humor-infused story line involving the rivalry between Evan and Whitefeather which offers more commentary on race in the upper-class workplace than one would expect. Evan, the African-American, is simply good at his job while Whitefeather is the one trying to use his supposed background to get ahead. Whitefeather pours out a flurry of Native American sayings, ideas and images, but never really says anything solid. Evan is astounded that anyone would be taken in by this snake-oil salesman routine. In fact, Murphy's race is a refreshing non-issue in this movie. Like his colleague Will Smith often does, Murphy delivers a movie as a black man which will connect with the culture as a whole. Race, while not invisible, feels irrelevant. It's a film for everyone.

The result is a warm, gently funny, soft movie about being a better dad.  But these kinds of stories can be tricky. "If you want to send a message, call Western Union," Samuel Goldwyn is famously quoted as saying. A film that was merely about working less and spending more time with kids would come off as preachy.

Imagine That screenwriter Ed Solomon was aware of this issue. "One of the things we were trying to do is tell a story about a guy who feels that he's burdened or cursed by a daughter he doesn't quite understand, but realizes that he's really been kinda blessed by that," he said. He then talked about the preciousness of time with his own children:  "This is passing by and they'll be 18 and they'll be out of the house and I just feel grateful for every minute I have with them."

Ultimately the film is a love story between a father and a daughter, which is a kind of love just as powerful as romance but not as often explored on film.



Starring Eddie Murphy and Yara Shahidi, Paramount Pictures' Imagine That releases in theaters nationwide on Friday, June 12, 2009.  For more information, please visit the official site for Imagine That.  

Read our full review of Imagine That here.