Split personality

The Walt Disney Company has a smart and highly profitable business strategy: Re-release the studio's proven hits every seven years or so, thereby reaching a new generation of kids--and making another tidy bundle of dollars in the process. Or the Mouse House just remakes its classic films--see, or don't, last year's That Darn Cat. Fact is, most remakes of any sort are lousy, but Disney has scored a bull's-eye with The Parent Trap--an engaging, family-oriented romantic comedy that should appeal as much to fans of the original movie as to viewers unfamiliar with the 1961 Hayley Mills version.

The first Parent Trap featured British child star Mills as identical twin sisters who, separated at birth by their parents' divorce and raised in different countries, meet one another at summer camp. After an initial rivalry, they become fast friends. Eager to meet their respective parents, they decide to switch places at summer's end and, essentially, masquerade as one another. Their ulterior motive, of course, is to reunite their mother and father and live again as one big happy family. The scheme nearly falls apart when the girls' father falls for a shallow, opportunistic gold digger. (It's somewhat surprising to learn that this very clever idea for a movie came not from some Hollywood-reared, high-concept-minded screenwriter but from a popular German children's story.)

The new Parent Trap follows essentially the same plot as the original, but it doesn't kick into gear until a good 10 or 15 minutes into the story. In fact, the first few minutes prove quite off-putting as actress Lindsay Lohan, doing double duty as the twins (renamed Hallie Parker and Annie James in this updated version), displays a revolting actress-y quality. Her face, voice, inflection, and movements are way too polished and cutesy. But starting with a fencing duel between the sisters--the first time the girls lay eyes on one another--the film does a miraculous turnaround, with Lohan proving herself a fine talent and an utter delight throughout the rest of the picture. Totally at ease in front of the camera, displaying an impressive English accent, and able to suggest two distinct characters with two very different personalities, the Long Island-born actress doesn't make a false move. The movie rests squarely on her shoulders, and she carries the weight effortlessly.

Which isn't to say that the other cast members don't pull their own weight. Natasha Richardson as Elizabeth James, perfect British mum and successful working woman, is a delight, especially in a hilarious scene during which she excitedly frets to the butler about seeing her husband for the first time after so many years. And Dennis Quaid as California wine grower Nick Parker is truly every girl's dream dad: attentive, roguishly handsome, and, icing on the cake, rich. Both actors come across as endearing, lovable parents, if clueless and befuddled in their own lives--idealized parents, surely, but this is, after all, a fantasy.

Kudos, also, to British actor Simon Kunz, who brings some wonderful moments to the story as the Jameses' butler, Martin. Quite proper on the outside but childlike and rather eccentric on the inside, he proves himself a wonderful friend and confidant to both Hallie and Annie. Lisa Ann Walter adds warmth and humor to the role of Hallie Parker's nanny.

Nancy Meyers, half of the highly successful husband-and-wife writing-producing-directing team of Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers (Baby Boom, Father of the Bride), makes her directorial debut with The Parent Trap, and her husband may have trouble getting another directing gig after this, so skillfully does Meyers handle the chores. She displays a great feel for how youngsters think, feel, and act, and she choreographs the camp scenes--the fencing duel, a poker game, a booby-trapped cabin--with great panache, not only visually but also in terms of pacing and musical sense.

The Parent Trap is essentially a kids' pic, aimed primarily at adolescent girls, although pre-teen boys conceivably could find it enjoyable because Lohan is so cute. Older female viewers who grew up on the original version may shy away, thinking it's impossible to improve upon such an old favorite and sacrilegious even to try. But if they can overcome such prejudices, they may find themselves very pleasantly surprised and entertained.

The Parent Trap.
Directed by Nancy Meyers. Written by David Swift, Nancy Meyers, and Charles Shyer. Starring Natasha Richardson, Dennis Quaid, and Lindsay Lohan. Now showing.


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