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Extended Thoughts on ‘The Parent Trap’

The Parent Trap

Directed by David Swift

Written by David Swift

Starring Hayley Mills, Maureen O’Hara, David Keith

Maintaining, or even attempting, realism in a Disney movie is a Herculean task, far more than being realistic in a movie that isn’t tied to the Mouse House. People don’t demand realism from Walt Disney; they expect or demand the exact opposite. The reason why the Disney theme parks do so well is because of their heightened version of reality, from a turn-of-the-century small town in middle America to its retro vision in the future. And Disney movies aren’t typified by kitchen-sink realism. The first think people think of in regards to Disney movies is their animated output, which is populated mostly by talking animals. Even when there aren’t talking animals at the forefront of their movies, Disney and realism don’t mix, and rarely try to.

I suppose that’s why I was a bit taken aback by The Parent Trap, the 1961 film starring Hayley Mills in a dual role as two girls who discover, by happenstance, that they’re long-lost identical twins and connive to get their parents back together and mend their broken home. Though the film may not be the be-all and end-all look at a modern family, not an idealized nuclear on, The Parent Trap turns out to be a fairly low-key, calm film, at least once it breaks free of its juvenile first 30 minutes. In some way, the first half-hour of the movie feels like a concession to the kids in the audience, the ones who were lured into the theater in 1961 by the prospect of a new song sung by Annette Funiciello and Tommy Sands. Once Susan and Sharon, our lead characters, go back to their parents (though having switched along the way, so the daughter who hasn’t seen her mother since she was 1 year old can finally do so, and vice versa), the film takes a long, deep breath and slows down.

The real problem with The Parent Trap is that writer and director David Swift doesn’t know how to balance either tone, or maintain pacing at all. Like the 1998 remake starring a young Lindsay Lohan, this version is just about 2 hours and 10 minutes long. As I mentioned on the show this week, I haven’t seen the 1998 version in full ever, though I’ve seen bits and pieces (enough to know that the remake apparently follows the original in many respects). But I fear I’ll have many of the same problems with the remake that I do with the original; specific to the length, the question is, “Why is this movie so long?” I have harped again and again about the length of movies we talk about on the show, and I’ll say once more what I always say: it doesn’t matter that a movie is a certain length. What matters is what the filmmakers do with that time. Swift does very little with a 129-minute length. After the first act at the summer camp, we watch as both daughters discover the parents they never knew, separately, in long sequences that aren’t terrible, but never seem to end. The fact that this film got an Oscar nod for Best Editing is truly mindblowing.

The switch in tone and pacing may be problematic when considering The Parent Trap as a whole, but I’m glad that Swift veered away from more childish pranks and gags (even what Susan and Sharon do to their father’s gold-digging fiancée in the second half is tame) as he continued the film. Once we meet Susan and Sharon’s parents, played by Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara, the real story kicks in. Frankly, the summer-camp sequence is troublesome not just because it makes us have to wait for the love story for too long, it also makes Susan and Sharon act ridiculously when faced with the reality that they’re not only children, but identical twins. As played by Mills, neither character is meant (I think) to be a dummy, and yet when Susan compares the way Sharon looks to “Frankenstein,” presumably referring to the monster Frankenstein created, her actions just seem stupid. The fact that it takes them 30 minutes to accept their connection is equally foolish.

Of course they don’t accept it at first, you say. How incredibly outlandish is it to imagine that you have an identical twin that you happen to meet at a summer camp, after thinking you were an only child for years? The likelihood of that happening is admittedly astronomical. But the facts are what they are: when you have two characters being played by the same person, and the only cosmetic differences are hair and an accent (about which more in a bit), avoiding the obvious makes no sense. Susan and Sharon may not want to believe it at first (and again, the why of that doesn’t add up), but they’re twins. The quicker they accept it, the quicker we can get to the meat of the film.

Once we get to the meat of the film, the serious crisis—how do kids get their parents back together?—is sidestepped a little bit more than it should be. We finally get the parents, Mitch and Maggie, in the same room in his rustic house in California, but instead of a tense confrontation, the two bicker with each other. A lot. Mitch and Maggie broke up mostly because they’re opposites; he’d be comfortable always living off the land, whereas she’s more of a patrician homebody. But they get along, and their chemistry even in the first argument is less acrimonious, and more banter-y. The script requires them to not get together instantly, but Susan and Sharon’s task seems a lot easier once their parents start reacting to each other.

So if the question is no longer “Why would Mitch and Maggie have ever divorced in the first place?”, it becomes “Why aren’t Mitch and Maggie getting back together immediately?” The answer is the film’s most serious and inexplicable issue, and one I believe I’ll be pointing out when we discuss the remake: Mitch’s fiancée. She’s awful. She’s one-dimensionally awful, which is the real problem. Mitch and Maggie may not be the most complex depiction of divorced parents in modern American popular culture, but they’re straight out of something O’Neill wrote compared to Vicky, the woman who wants to marry Mitch for his money. That Mitch doesn’t see right through her is baffling, not because the character’s been presented as exceptionally shrewd or intelligent, but simply because she’s not really hiding her intent.

Though Mitch is an inherently good character, Keith does a fine job bringing some layers to the character. But none of those layers explain why Mitch would ever want to marry Vicky. Gabe offered the idea that maybe he was swayed by the younger woman’s good looks, and hey, maybe that’s true. The issue is that this is all subtext, and it’s all presumed subtext. As I sometimes wonder on the podcast, I’m not sure the people making this movie were thinking so deeply about the character motivations, which is frustrating. Why waste our time on a false crisis when the endgame is the same? Sure, this tactic happens in many romantic comedies, but the best ones don’t call attention to their respective crises seeming unnecessary.

I do wish that the people involved in the film had dug a bit deeper into the idea of the absentee father, or the father who’s unaware of the good and bad among the women around him. While this could be perceived as a fairly misogynistic view, some of the most memorable Disney movies—such as Cinderella—involve fathers making baffling decisions. Think of Cinderella’s father; why does he marry Lady Tremaine? Of course, he dies before the story proper begins, but the notion that a character we assume (because the movie never tells us otherwise) is decent would get married to a clearly awful harridan is striking because of how inexplicable it seems. It’s just as odd in The Parent Trap, but Swift never attempts to deepen Mitch as a character by making him flawed or simply explaining what the hell it is about Vicky he likes so much.

Something else that’s frustrating, and genuinely confusing by the end of the film, is Hayley Mills’ voice work. She’s British, and so Sharon is also British. For a second, let’s pretend that this makes a lick of sense, even though it doesn’t. (Neither parent is apparently from Great Britain. Only Maggie’s mother is British—why would Sharon have a British accent? It’s safe to say I think Gabe’s explanation, which was at least an attempt at logic, doesn’t hold water.) The idea that Susan and Sharon hit upon is to switch places when they go home from camp. Susan will spend time with her mother, and Sharon will spend time with her father. But that means Susan has to act like Sharon, British accent and all, while Sharon has to sound American. And yet, as the switch takes place, it’s as if both characters decide to speak in a slightly British accent, though no one on Mitch’s side finds that the least bit odd.

As a whole, The Parent Trap is something of a mess, but one that’s pleasant to behold. The story’s got problems, the movie’s too long, the lead characters aren’t played by the best actress. And yet something about this movie works. I don’t even know how to explain it in words, but despite the issues I have with the film, I was OK with it. I’m still hoping for a better early live-action film from Walt Disney Pictures—whatever issues I had with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I admired its scope, technical elements, and adventuresome spirit—but as a fairly mature try at tackling divorce, I was impressed by The Parent Trap.

– Josh Spiegel