The premise couldn't be less plausible, but who has ever cared? Since it came out in 1961, "The Parent Trap" has been an embraceable fantasy, a sugarplum vision of a world where parents are perfect though apart and children are the only ones with the sense and savvy to bring them together again.
Beloved though it is, the original Hayley Mills-starring "The Parent Trap" shows its age more than fond memory admits. The filmmaking team of Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer took on the task of doing it again, and an irresistible family entertainment it turns out to be.
Hewing so closely to the original structure that 1961 writer David Swift shares a screenplay credit, this new "Parent Trap" is right at home in an age when the line "It's scary the way no one stays together anymore" seems even more to the point than it did nearly four decades ago.
It's not only the offspring of broken homes who will be attracted to this film about children planning to trick their split folks into reuniting. Everyone's on-screen life is so completely perfect, each parent such an amalgam of shining beauty and caring virtue, that it's hard not to wish you were a long-lost family member, too.
Adding contemporary comedy to the tale (based on German writer Erich Kastner's "Das Doppelte Lottchen" or "The Double Lottie") is the Meyers & Shyer team, whose past credits include "Private Benjamin," "Irreconcilable Differences" and the remade "Father of the Bride."
Shyer has been the directing half of the team in the past, but Meyers gets her chance this time, and she makes full use of the opportunity. "The Parent Trap" is a glossy, high-energy entertainment, always smooth and clever. Though the film could use a little shortening, it's been directed with an easy touch and has the considerable virtue of not pushing the sentiment harder than it needs to.
In this, in fact in all things, "The Parent Trap" can't be imagined without its 11-year-old redheaded star, Lindsay Lohan. Her bright spirit and impish smile make for an immensely likable young person we take to our hearts almost at once. Lohan's the soul of this film as much as Hayley Mills was of the original, and, aided by a gift for accent and considerably improved technology, she is more adept than her predecessor at creating two distinct personalities for the unknowing twin sisters who meet at Camp Walden in Moose Lake, Maine.
Hallie Parker is a completely California girl down to her painted nails and her love for horses. She lives on an idyllic vineyard in the Napa Valley with handsome and loving father Nick (Dennis Quaid) and has developed quite an affinity for poker and fencing.
Well-behaved Annie James knows a few things about poker and fencing, too, but otherwise she is Hallie's opposite, more Posh Spice than Brat Pack. Annie lives in London with beautiful and loving mother Elizabeth (Natasha Richardson), a designer of exclusive wedding gowns (Vera Wang's are the ones we see).
When Hallie and Annie discover each other at camp, they can't stand what they see, the shared sentiment being "That girl is without a doubt the lowest, most awful creature that ever walked the planet."
That shared enmity leads to a series of ghastly pranks that land both girls in the dread Isolation Cabin, where they discover: A) that they share a taste for Oreos with peanut butter and B) that they are identical twins separated at birth by photogenic and loving parents who somehow decided this was the sane thing to do.
Barely daunted, the twins come up with "a brilliant beyond brilliant idea." They will switch places, so each can meet the parent they've never known. When the time is right they'll reveal themselves, forcing mother and father to meet again to unswitch them.
Everything goes fine when Hallie arrives in London, but back at Napa, Annie discovers that handsome and loving Nick is being stalked by a calculating blond vamp named Meredith Blake (Elaine Hendrix), nicknamed "Miss I'll Just Have Half a Grapefruit," who is intent on marrying him for his money. A series of panicky transatlantic phone calls follows, and soon enough Nick and Elizabeth are headed for that fateful reunion.
Casting Quaid and Richardson as the parents is one of "The Parent Trap's" shrewder moves. Though they've never played roles this dreamy before (who has?), these two are up to the task and display excellent chemistry. Because this is a '90s movie, they've both got household help, and her butler Martin and his housekeeper-nanny Chessy are strongly played by Simon Kunz and Lisa Ann Walter. (In a nice touch, Joanna Barnes, who played the gold digger in 1961, is cast as Meredith's mother.)
"The Parent Trap" manages to have it both ways. It utilizes lines of dialogue from the original while putting Leonardo DiCaprio's photo where Ricky Nelson's used to be, and it also has its own set of unexpected comic moments, like a camper with the chubbiest cheeks working away at the bugle. And having a star like Lohan, a girl whose happiness you can't help but share in, doesn't hurt a bit.
* MPAA rating: PG for mild mischief. Times guidelines: a scene of ear-piercing and one of a lizard being swallowed.
'The Parent Trap'
Lindsay Lohan: Hallie Parker/Annie James
Dennis Quaid: Nick Parker
Natasha Richardson: Elizabeth James
Elaine Hendrix: Meredith Blake
Lisa Ann Walter: Chessy
Simon Kunz: Martin
Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Nancy Meyers. Producer Charles Shyer. Screenplay David Swift and Nancy Meyers & Charles Shyer. Cinematographer Dean Cundey. Editor Stephen A. Rotter. Costumes Penny Rose. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Dean Tavoularis. Art director Alex Tavoularis. Set decorator Gary Fettis. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
* Playing in general release throughout Southern California.