“The Parent Trap” is Really Messed Up When You Think About It

Lots of people love to throw animated Disney under the bus for questionable moral implications, gender stereotyping, gruesome deaths, and references that, let’s be fair, usually end up sailing right over kids’ heads.

Never mind that the live action films can be just as questionable. The most recent example, Maleficent, a film I’ve previously reviewed, is essentially a family friendly, symbolic rape/revenge story.

Personally, I’m well past tired of everyone taking shots at Disney. Yes, they’re an easy target, but it’s overdone; no one has anything fresh or interesting to say anymore. And most of the people I see doing it are those eager to jump on the hardcore social justice bandwagon, because that’s not just acceptable, but lauded. These same people, so eager to find the daily cause of “all the evil in the world” (which is, in some cases, why they themselves are so unhappy), forget to acknowledge little things like, say, Disney’s growth over the years. Or, more importantly, the time periods in which certain films came out.

A character from the 50's isn't the most feminist or progressive, you say? LIES! LIES AND SLANDER!
A character from the 50’s isn’t the most feminist or progressive, you say? LIES! LIES AND SLANDER!

 

Criticize where the franchise is going, not where it came from, is all I’m saying.

But I do understand where it’s coming from. Really, I do, and I can agree on many levels. Sometimes, you only really understand how horrifying something is, or was, by looking back at it, and as far as family movies go, this one gets pretty uncomfortable:

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I love this movie. I used to watch Lindsay Lohan in everything, and The Parent Trap in particular has pretty good effects, passable acting (most of the time), nice music, and an upbeat plot that barely slows down, filled with some good (occasionally shoehorned) comedic moments. Very formulaic and by-the-numbers, but enjoyable. It’s goofy and nostalgic enough to make me smile.

 

So we agree. Fairly harmless, right?

Wrong!

It’s basically a story of two desperate, repressed girls trying to forcefully reunite two awful people to bring their family together.

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…Maybe so, but think about it.

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The focus on the parents in the movie is very limited, especially when it comes to their separation. We only learn that they decided, for whatever reason, that they couldn’t stand to be married or even living on the same continent as one another. And their best solution was to separate the twins and take one each with them, then never tell that child about their other parent and twin.

* Not, “Let’s schedule weekly/monthly/yearly get-togethers for our kids’ sakes.” Because then they would have to actually interact with each other!

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It’s not as though they have a pleasant dinner and numerous conversations together halfway through the movie, and are perfectly civil and even vaguely flirtatious with one another.

* Not, “I’ll keep them for a week/month/year, and you keep them for a week/month/year, with some visits,” as Elizabeth, the mom, suggests later in the film (of course only after the girls have met and will now insist on seeing each other and both of their parents again at some point).

Because home school is completely out of the question. Especially considering that both folks are well-off enough to afford hired help and nice properties.

* Not even, “Well, since I’m uber career-driven, why don’t you take custody and I’ll just pop by when I have time.”

They picked their jobs over each other, but not over the girls. No, they’ll find out how to balance those.

No! It’d just be best to separate them and pretend the other twin doesn’t exist!

*
*

To be fair, I’ve never been (and hope never to be) divorced. And my parents are still happily married. I’m sure it’s very difficult and awkward, before, during, and after the process, with a wide range of circumstances. Add kids to the mix, and things get murkier. Emotions and drama run high.

Also, this is a film, not real life, so it doesn’t need to be completely bound by the constraints of real life.

True, but even in movie world, things seem amiss. When the parents in this movie discover that- surprise! – they’ve actually taken the other twin home with them and not the one they intended to, they sweetly tell the girl they ignored for 11 years that they’ve loved and missed and thought about her ever since the split, and it’s a tearful, happy reunion.

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Here is the problem with that: because no screen time is spent showing either Elizabeth or Nick thinking of or missing their lost daughters, it makes what could have been good drama, an interesting dilemma, or even a deeply touching reunion, and just makes the two of them look lazy and cowardly.

It’s like they couldn’t be assed to put forth an effort for both of their girls, even in the slightest. For all we the audience are aware, Elizabeth and Nick tossed a coin to pick one and then merrily skipped town.

In their own words, after they meet up again, the parents say that they can’t even remember why they came up with this “arrangement” in the first place. Not why they fought, why Elizabeth threw a hair dryer and hit Nick in the head, nor even why they never spoke again afterwards, via phone or snail mail. What we are left with are that they were young and had “tempers,” and apparently decided to split forever.

Not exactly the same as telling your child that their dog went to “the farm” to spare them the pain of acknowledging death perhaps a little too soon. Or spinning yarns about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Hell, at least on The Simpsons, Herbert Powell, Homer’s half brother (who appears in the episode “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”), was born out of wedlock and put up for adoption by his mother. It made some sense why Grandpa put off telling Homer about it until he was older.

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The “girls” (Lohan) are cute and funny, if a bit creepy and disconcertingly manipulative at points. I get the sense that that was intentional on the part of the writers, though. Harmless enough, I guess, but their desperate desire to incorporate a total stranger into their lives is kind of sad, even if it’s understandable.

They torment a mean potential stepmother (oh Disney) who deserves it, and drive her off.

By the way, what did you mean when you said, “They’re half yours,” Elizabeth? Even the daughter that is in your custody will partially belong to evil, gold-digging stepmother?

…How exactly did your prenup or whatever work?

But back to the adults, compare the parents here to those in the 1961 adaptation.

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Maggie and Mitch frequently argued on screen, and it was more believable why the two could barely stay in a room together, much less married. Despite any chemistry, there was sufficient tension to create drama.

Elizabeth and Nick bicker some, but most of it comes across as playful snark, not real arguments or conflict. In fact, their lack of effort towards a better compromise for the girls makes them seem kind of worse than Maggie and Mitch, who might have at seriously thought that a split up home was better than one where they constantly fought.

Elizabeth and Nick separate, in the third act, mostly because the plot demands it.

And as is standard for romcoms, Nick realizes that it is his job to fix things. In this case, reunite the family. He and Hallie follow Elizabeth and Allie back to London, like Elizabeth since the first time they fought and she stormed out. They then remarry in the closing credits, to everyone’s delight.

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Nick is, presumably, perfectly happy to give up his beloved, spacious vineyard in California and go move to a new country, all to accommodate Elizabeth.

Maybe he can sell it and pay for family counseling. I get the feeling they would need it, were this “based on a true story.”

The writers try to make the parents flawed, but nice people; relatable, quirky, and bursting with chemistry. But trying to do that might have been a bit beyond them. Inadvertently, Nick and Elizabeth are kind of despicable; either selfish and thoughtless, just plain stupid, or some unholy combination. And it has to, in order to make this premise even work.

It’s a catch 22.

Despite the liberties and changes, many of the problems with the remake leak back into the original movie and book as well. A cute or whacky premise has to, at the very least, not stretch the suspension of disbelief to breaking point. Along those lines, look at your characters and think through the implications of making their choices, or at least portraying those choices, simplistically. Love and life are complex, but if that’s what you’re trying to get at, don’t dumb them down or skimp on the crucial details to save time.

I tend to cut the fairy tale adaptations more slack on potential implications because they are simplistic by nature; they are meant to convey one lesson or warning in particular, even if there are multiple, in a simplistic but imaginative way.

The Parent Trap might well be a fairy tale in its own right; most movies are. But the closer you get to a real-life, real-world, modern scenario, I think you’ll find that people internalize those stories more. Even believe in them.

Because the similarities are just too striking to ignore.

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*No images belong to me. All to their respective owners; more than most to Disney.

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2 thoughts on ““The Parent Trap” is Really Messed Up When You Think About It”

  1. Thank you for articulating all of that- I obsessed over this movie when it came out. It made me believe that any two people could make it work if they tried hard enough, and I blamed my parents for giving up. I’ve stayed in unhealthy relationships well after they went bad because I thought I could fix them. That’s not how it works, Disney.

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  2. So true! I just re-watched this movie, after many, many years.

    It never struck me as a child just how odd this scenario is – to separate siblings and not even mention their existence to each other? And purely for your own selfish reasons?!

    It is really messed up and I think the kids, if they weren’t mad yet in the movie, would’ve been as they started to get older, realizing just how much they had missed out on.

    Yes it’s a fun, frolicking movie. But looking deeper just brings up so many questions. Questions that don’t have easy answers.

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