'Parent Trap' Returns To Big Screen in Style

Twins have provided story ideas for Hollywood dramas ("The Dark Mirror," "A Stolen Life") and comedies ("Our Relations," "Wonder Man") and thrillers ("Murder by Television," "Dead Ringers") for as long as anyone can remember. Of the examples that proved popular at the box office, few produced more fond and lasting memories than "The Parent Trap," a Walt Disney release that became a family-film favorite in the early 1960s.

Family entertainments aren't as abundant today as they were in those bygone years, so it's a pleasure to revisit "The Parent Trap" in a 1998 version. It is similar to the original but juiced up with new gags and gimmicks that should compete nicely with the action-oriented fare now reigning in multiplexes. It's also more successful than the current "Madeline" at diverting adults along with their kids.

The heroines are 11-year-old identical twins who were separated soon after birth and know nothing of each other's existence. Meeting by coincidence at a summer camp, they become rivals at first, then realize their relationship and start comparing the lives they've led.

Both have been blessed with comfortable homes - Hallie lives with Dad in the California countryside, Annie with Mom in a London town house - but they've missed the joys of a two-parent household. The logical solution is to bring those antagonistic grown-ups back together.

The method: They'll pull the old twin-trick of trading places, move into each other's homes, and dream up some way of reuniting the family. The problem: Dad has fallen for a young beauty who's after his money, and if the twins don't hurry, he'll remarry before their scheme has time to work.

The biggest difference between the two "Parent Trap" versions is the age of the main characters, played by 15-year-old Hayley Mills in the original and 12-year-old Lindsay Lohan in the remake. This opens the door for more preteen-style humor - and more appeal to very young viewers - without disturbing the basic outline of the adult-romance angle. The maneuver works very well, largely because Lohan is a first-rate young performer, loaded with energy and equipped with all the acting skills for her challenging dual role.

Speaking of which, Hollywood technology has taken a stride or two since the split-screen techniques of the 1961 edition, replacing them with computerized effects that allow Lohan's two characters to interact with remarkable realism. Credit goes partly to the actress and partly to cinematographer Dean Cundey, who contributes the expertise he cultivated in pictures like "Jurassic Park" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

For all the lighthearted merits of "The Parent Trap," it's worth noting that despite its setting in the supposedly real world, the movie isn't much more true to life than the out-and-out fantasies just mentioned. The twins' surroundings are so comfy, carefree, and affluent that you may find yourself wondering how they'd solve their problems if they didn't have oodles of money, unlimited leisure, and cooperative servants at their beck and call. Hollywood has always dealt with this kind of dreaminess, of course, but less-privileged youngsters with real-life family challenges will glean little support from this rose-colored fiction.

Back on the positive side, the rest of the cast is as effective as the young star, from Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson as the split-up parents to Lisa Ann Walter and Simon Kunz as household helpers who become the twins' romantic accomplices. Nancy Meyers directed the picture from a screenplay she penned with her husband, Charles Shyer, and Hollywood veteran David Swift, who wrote and directed the first "Parent Trap" almost four decades ago.

* Rated PG; contains a small amount of mild innuendo. David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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