SPOILER ALERT: This review will discuss certain plot points in the film. If you have not seen the film before, I encourage you to watch it before reading this review.
One of my favorite aspects of movies is their ability to affect us in many different ways. There are great movies that make us think and consider the realities of human existence. There are great movies that make us laugh or look at life with a satirical eye. There are great movies that surpise us. And there are great movies that help us escape into another world - whether real or fanciful - for a short time.
Sometimes I think we use the term "escapism" as a negative, that somehow it's lesser art. Personally, my movie tastes tend to dramas most often. However, I think escapism is a vitally important power of film. Not everyone wants to go to the movies to see a gritty drama about life and death. I generally prefer such films, and even I don't always want that from a movie experience. Sometimes you want to have fun and be utterly consumed by the world on the screen. I don't think that's a lower goal. But, as with any film, I simply ask that such movies be well-written and stay true to the story they're telling.
The 1998 version of The Parent Trap is such a film. Directed by Nancy Meyers, it completely consumes us in the story of two estranged twins, Annie and Hallie (both played by a young Lindsay Lohan), trying to reunite their parents - Nick Parker (Dennis Quaid) and Elizabeth James (the late Natasha Richardson). It is a light, fun story. There is no condescension in that statement. This is a great film, in my opinion. It gets us past some levels of preposterousness in its plot (which I will discuss in a moment) by enthralling us in the story. That is due to it being a timeless story that is both well-written and well-acted.
Before I go any further, it must be said that this is a remake of the 1961 film that bears its name. It is also an adaptation of Erich Kästner's German novel Lottie and Lisa (Das doppelte Lottchen). I haven't seen the earlier film or read the novel, but you should be aware of the source material.
Much of the film's greatness comes from the acting performance by Lindsay Lohan. For my millennial contemporaries, you may think of tabloid headlines the moment you hear Lohan's name. But this is a reminder that she was and is an incredibly talented person.
Lohan plays both Hallie Parker and Annie James. Hallie and Annie are twins who were separated shortly after their birth due to the divorce of their parents. Hallie went with her dad to California, and Annie went with her mom to London.
Consider for a second the skill needed here, in Lohan's film debut, to play two separate characters with two distinct accents. Maybe I'm being overly laudatory here, but I find that to be a fantastic job by such a young actress. Later in the film, we'll see another level to Lohan's work in these roles.
Hallie and Annie are both sent to the same summer camp, and this is where the film's plot begins to take shape. Frankly, it is also a little silly to think that their parents, from two sides of the globe, would send them both to the same summer camp. The camp - Camp Walden - is in Maine, which I guess would be a midpoint between London and Napa Valley. By all accounts, it seems to be a very normal camp. So it's hard to understand why two wealthy individuals would choose it to send their daughter on a long trip to attend. If this is a misstep, I think it is one of only a few in the film. And, I don't really find it to be much of misstep at all thanks to the fact that, by the time we get to Camp Walden, we've already been pulled into the film's romantic aesthetic. We aren't thinking about the intricacies of the plot, because we're too caught up from the film's first scene. This doesn't make The Parent Trap a "dumb" movie where we don't think about things. In fact, I think it's the total opposite! It's a smart movie for how it uses its writing to set up the rest of the film. How Hallie and Annie got there isn't important to the plot. What is important is that they are there. Why is it important? Well, we will have to find that out. But all of it stems from the setup that is the movie's opening scene.
The first scene showcases a flashback to Nick and Elizabeth's wedding night on the RMS Queen Elizabeth II. They kiss, share a special bottle of wine and all along the Nat King Cole classic "L-O-V-E" plays in the background. From the first scene, it should be clear - this movie is about love.
This movie also happens to be one of the first movies I remember watching. I was six years-old when the film was released. I don't quite remember when I saw it first, but it was surely soon after. I loved this movie as a kid, but it wasn't until I was in college that I revisited it. I couldn't get to sleep one night, so I figured I'd watch a movie. For some reason, I decided on revisiting this nostalgic childhood memory. I fully expected that my "adult" tastes would not find it so interesting.
But I loved it just as much as I always had.
I truly think it is because of classic storytelling - something that doesn't age or fade with time. If you have good characters that want something badly and then are faced with some kind of obstacle in their attempt to get it, you have the classic story structure. The fact that the characters in this movie want love makes it even more classic. The Parent Trap lays a great foundation by having such great writing. But it is the acting that really brings this movie to life.
I've already mentioned how great I think Lohan is in this film. Her performance as both Hallie and Annie is enthralling throughout the scenes at Camp Walden. But she takes it to another level when the story shifts to its two opposite ends of the globe.
Hallie and Annie devise a scheme where they will impersonate each other so they can meet the parents they have never met before. When the parents inevitably figure out what has happened, they will have to meet up to return them to their rightful homes. It is a simple scheme, but sometimes those are the best ones.
But, again, take some time to consider the acting performance by Lohan here. Keeping in mind that this is her film debut, not only is she performing two different accents, but now she has to act like someone acting those accents. In her scenes as Hallie impersonating Annie and vice versa, she makes subtle changes to the accents to showcase that this is someone else trying to be someone else. That Lohan could make such nuanced acting choices showcases her talent at such a young age.
The music is also very well-done. I remember the montage of Hallie seeing London for the first time set to the tune of "There She Goes" by The La's. Anyone who has ever had the childhood experience of riding in the backseat of a car as a new city stretches into the sky outside your window will relate to the sequence. Romantic anthems like the aforementioned "L-O-V-E" (sung by Nat King Cole and used in the opening credits) and "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)" ( sung by Nat's daughter Natalie Cole and used in the end credits) enrapture us. But I think the film's aesthetic is uniquely captured by one song from the soundtrack, in particular - "Do You Believe in Magic" by The Lovin' Spoonful. We want to believe that love is magical and can bring people together who have been separated by long distances. This movie gives us that, and it surely is magical.
The two girls go to separate parts of the globe, and we meet some wonderful supporting players. There is Martin (Simon Kunz), the James family butler. He is accompanied by Elizabeth's father, Charles (Ronnie Stevens), who Annie (and, thus, Hallie) know as Grandfather. Back in California, we meet Chessy (Lisa Ann Walter), the Parker family housekeeper. Things progress fine. But with such a globe-spanning scheme, something must inevitably go wrong. For any good story, our protagonists must face an obstacle to overcome in pursuit of their quest. Hallie and Annie want their parents back together more than anything. They have gone to great lengths (literally) to accomplish this. But, they are presented with an obstacle they did not see coming.
That obstacle would be Meredith Blake (Elaine Hendrix) - a 26 year-old publicist who is engaged to Nick.
In a movie about true love, what is the worst thing imaginable? Well, that would be fake love. This movie holds love as something to be chased after - it is vitally important. So, someone who wields love as something to be used for personal gain, well, they would be particularly vile.
But that is exactly what Meredith does. She clearly is only interested in Nick because of his money and his good looks. Although, I'd wager that even if Nick wasn't as dashing as Dennis Quaid but still had the money, Meredith would be planning a wedding nonetheless.
And this all bring us to the inevitable scene when all the various players are thrown together. We get some smartly comedic moments at the hotel where they all stay. One example is when Meredith and Elizabeth find themselves at the same bar discussing Elizabeth's famous wedding gowns that Meredith wants for her wedding ceremony. Or the scene at the pool where everyone is finally introduced to one another. Hendrix, as Meredith, has a unique ability to let out a surpised scream - something we see first in this scene but will be on full display later. Quick fun fact: here we also meet Meredith's parents, Vicki (Joanna Barnes) and Les (J. Patrick McCormack). In the original film, Barnes played the role of Vicki Robinson - the Meredith character of that film.
It is decided that the whole group will go spend some time at Parker's Napa Valley vineyard. A man, his ex-wife, his two daughters, and his new fiance - what could possibly go wrong? Here again, I think the movie showcases its smart writing.
We've all been in awkward family situations such as this before. Maybe not quite this awkward, but we can relate nonetheless. In every such situation, I've always seen family members try to alleviate some of the awkwardness. If this movie were to continue with all the characters spending time with each other without any consequences, we wouldn't trust it. Either they are forced to spend time together and things end poorly, or they decide that they can't spend time together so as to avoid the unhappy ending.
Elizabeth decides that she will stay back at the vineyard while Nick, Meredith, Hallie, and Annie go for a camping trip. It makes sense. It's what any sane person would do in that situation. I think this movie should be praised for knowing when to stretch the limits of believability and when to hold back. They all go off on the camping trip, and we are given a hilariously comedic set piece.
Fish out of water is one thing, but Meredith camping is on an entirely different level. It is not her element whatsoever. The girls, now full-on partners in crime in pursuit of their ultimate goal, take full advantage of this. The scenes in the woods remind me of the scenes from the Home Alone series when Kevin creates his contraptions to bamboozle the Wet Bandits. It's a kid's dream - outsmarting the adults. That is surely an aspect of why these movies entralled me as a child. But somehow, I find them just as funny now when I watch as an adult.
Finally, after the girls have elicited more and more piercing screams from Meredith, Nick comes to the realization that this is, in fact, not the person he should marry. She does not love his daughters, and that is the last straw. Again, love is the most important thing here. If she doesn't love them, then she can't love him.
At this point, we believe that the happy ending is here. The girls have done it! Despite the long odds, they've actually brought their parents back together.
Not so fast, my friends.
Since this is such a classic storyline, the writers understand that we expect that to happen. Instead, Elizabeth and Annie go back to London, leaving Hallie and Nick to wonder about what might have been. Again, the decision makes sense. These two divorced for a reason. Are they really going to get back together after one weekend?
No, it takes more than that. It takes love. But if you truly love someone, you'll go to great lengths for them. Nick didn't chase after Elizabeth the first time, but this time is different. When Annie and Elizabeth get home, they find Hallie and Nick there waiting for them. Nick and Elizabeth embrace and kiss as the triumphant girls look on. They really did it! They brought their parents back together.
Here, the movie showcases one final bit of smart writing. Because of the romantic nature of the film, we probably could overlook the quandary of how Nick and Hallie might possibly beat Annie and Elizabeth home. But, instead, the writers throw us a bone by telling us that Nick and Hallie flew on the Concorde - the supersonic jet that used to give passengers the fastest cross-Atlantic flight around. They didn't have to do that, but it adds more credibility to the film.
The movie ends with a montage showing Nick and Elizabeth getting remarried aboard the QE2 - the place where they met. We also see Martin propose to Chessy. They both give fine performances in the film, and their romantic subplot is a nice addition to the storyline.
Does love really work like this? The cynical ones may say no. Life isn't so magical. I look at my experience with my wife, and while I wouldn't attribute it to magic, I can't help but think that certain events were supposed to happen. That Sarah and I are supposed to be together. That a core reason I am on this earth is to love and cherish her.
This movie cherishes love as a thing to be desired and even chased after. It uses smart writing and classic plot structure to bring us into and enthrall us in its story. We get a great performance from Lindsay Lohan, and the rest of the cast is supremely enjoyable. Its elements - love, family, loss, and renewal - are absolutely timeless.
This is plain and simply a fun, great film. Put another way, The Parent Trap shows that if a movie handles plain and simple things with excellence, it can have fantastic amounts of fun with being a great film.
Note on content: During the Camp Walden scenes, Annie is forced to jump into the lake naked after losing a poker match. She is only shown from the shoulders up and the knees down. There are minor sexual references during the film, but it is extremely tame. It certainly would be appropriate for older children. There is one scene where the girls perform a DIY ear piercing that probably should be put in context for children so that they do not try to do something similar themselves. Overall, this film was rated PG back in 1998, and I don't see any reason to dispute that rating.