Parent Trap, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It never fails to amaze me that something as essentially light and pointless as Disney's remake of The Parent Trap can clock in at over two hours in length. This is one of those movies that has difficulty sustaining any kind of comic or dramatic momentum for 90 minutes, so the final half-hour turns into a real endurance contest. Of course, the original The Parent Trap, a 1961 film that pushed all the same "cute" buttons, was saddled with virtually the same bloated running time, which offers a partial explanation as to why Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer felt they had to confine audiences to their seats for so long.

I'm not sure how or when the first The Parent Trap was elevated to the Disney-proclaimed status of "a classic," since it's just another dated example of the family-friendly, creatively-barren pabulum that the studio turns out with regularity. The film was popular enough with kids to warrant three made-for-TV sequels (all starring Hayley Mills). Now, with a completely new cast and the remake team of Meyers and Shyer (Father of the Bride, Father of the Bride Part II) behind the camera, Disney is once again engaging in a process that their live-action division thrives on: self-cannibalization. And it wouldn't be so bad if any of these second-chance movies were actually good.

The story, which stays pretty close to the original, doesn't break into new (or, to be frank, interesting) territory. It also has a premise that stretches a willing suspension of disbelief past the breaking point (more on that later). The film opens with a brief sequence in 1986 that shows a well-dressed couple romancing each other on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Cut to a summer camp in Maine, 11 years and 9 months later. Hallie Parker (Lindsay Lohan) has arrived there from her home in Napa, California, where she lives with her single father, Nick (Dennis Quaid). Another of Camp Walden's summer visitors, Annie James (also Lohan), has come all the way from England, where she lives with her single mother, Elizabeth (Natasha Richardson). It turns out that Hallie and Annie are dead ringers, and, after a brief period of one-upsmanship that escalates into a prank war, the two girls bond. In the course of cementing their friendship, Hallie and Annie make the remarkable discovery that they are actually twin sisters. They then decide that, when camp is over, they will switch places so that each can meet the parent they don't know with the eventual goal of getting Mom and Dad together again.

Consider, if you will, the reason why Hallie and Annie have never met: because Nick and Elizabeth, shortly after the birth of the twins, split up and agreed that each of them would take one child, and there would be no further contact between the two halves of the broken family. To accept this premise, you have to swallow two gargantuan contrivances:

1. A parent would be willing to give up a beloved child to an ex-spouse and would agree to never attempt to contact that child in the future, and
2. The children, who are obviously terminally incurious, would never be told that they are one half of a matched set.

Of course, the problem with this is that it's not remotely credible, even in the context of a lightweight fantasy. And believability isn't the only problem. This solution paints Nick and Elizabeth as self-centered ogres who are more concerned about staying away from each other than with the well-being of their offspring. Of course, that isn't how Disney wants us to think about these two, but cheerful performances by Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson can't obscure the basic facts. And it's equally odd that Hallie and Annie, upon figuring out their parents' duplicity, don't show even the slightest sign of resentment.

Unless it's in deference to the fact that Hayley Mills played both girls in the first The Parent Trap, I have no idea why the film makers decided to cast a single child, rather than real twins, as Hallie and Annie. While there's no denying that young actress Lindsay Lohan has spunk, she's not terribly effective in the dual role. Her performance is awkward and unsubtle -- she relies on an unconvincing British accent to cue us in to which girl she's playing at any given moment. While the photography used to create the illusion of twins is seamless, Lohan never persuades us that Hallie and Annie are different people, since she plays them both in the same way.

For those in search of a silver lining to the cloud that is The Parent Trap, look no further than the supporting cast. Simon Kunz, who portrays Elizabeth and Annie's butler, Martin, steals every scene he's in, and is the movie's one source of constant entertainment. Kunz, who has had bit parts in a few other films (Goldeneye, Four Weddings and a Funeral) gives an inspired, and occasionally hilarious, performance. Other players include Lisa Ann Walter as Chessy, Nick and Hallie's housekeeper, and Elaine Hendrix as the cold-as-ice Meredith, a gold-digger who's out to marry Nick to gain access to his check book. (Cutting out this irritating subplot would have reduced the running time to something more reasonable.)

The one thing that The Parent Trap has going for it is that it is cute and sporadically funny. However, unless you're an eleven year-old girl (the obvious target audience), neither of those qualities is reason enough to see the film. I admit to having laughed on several occasions, most notably during a well-timed sequence when characters are just missing each other in a hotel lobby. But, in an overlong production like this, such effective scenes are like comic oases in a desert of tedium. The Parent Trap is another lackluster entry into Disney's ever-growing library of unnecessary remakes.

Parent Trap, The (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 1998-07-29
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1