The Parent Trap (1961 & 1998)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in No Boys Allowed | 0 comments

Disclaimer: The updated version may encourage girls to pierce their own ears and sip wine.

When many filmgoers see a preview or hear/read a movie synopsis involving twins switching places, they immediately think of Disney’s The Parent Trap. The reaction is a warranted one, since it’s the most well-known, but the formula can be traced back further with Erich Kastner’s book and film versions such as 1950’s Das Doppelte Lottchen or Emeric Pressburger’s Twice Upon a Time three years later. If one looked even further, I wouldn’t be surprised if they unveiled similar stories decades earlier. The legacy of the formula continues to this day as made-for-TV sequels or remakes came in 1986 and two more in 1989, with the Olson twins’ It Takes Two following in 1995 and Disney’s remake of its own classic in 1998.

Both films begin at a summer camp, where a pampered, wealthy young lady spots her short-haired and tomboyish look-alike. Both versions vary in where the cultured girl is from (Boston and London), but the outdoorsy gals are both from northern California. Their first meeting is far from love at first sight, as the girls begin a stealthy prank war against each other. “The nerve of her coming here with your face,” one of the girls’ friends exclaims in the original. Their attempts to one-up each other (“a most disgusting display of hooliganism”) enrages the camp bigwig, who in turn punishes the girls by forcing them to live together in isolation for the remainder of the summer. After their hatred wanes, the gals become BFFs (that’s best friends forever in case you haven’t talked to a teenage girl in some time) and realize the truth of their twindom. Since they have both spent their lives with only one parent and they’d very much like to meet the other, the twins decide to spend their last few weeks together learning to mimic each other. The high society socialite must learn to bite her nails and say “ant,” while the rancher/wino must learn to be ladylike and say “aunt.” A training montage expedites this process as the gals learn the floorplans of their new homes and the people in them, the necessary hair and dress alterations, and, in the remake, an elaborate handshake.

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While the eventual switch is entertaining, it only lasts a few days as an emergency (their father’s new love interest) calls for immediate action. Based on the fiancée’s age, suspicions mount that she may be a gold digger. “If the shoe fits,” one of the girls says. Plus the new arrangement ruins the twins’ plan of reuniting their parents. After all, children in movies always know who’s best for their parents and never the other way around. The girls try to sidestep the issue at hand as much as possible. “What do you think about making (her) a part of our family?” the father asks. “I think it’s a wonderful idea; I’ve always wanted a big sister,” she responds. But, ultimately, the manipulative duo tries everything within their power to “submarine” the fiancée and get their parents back together with the help of a few minor characters who also know the score.

Played by Joanna Barnes and Elaine Hendrix in the respective installments, the fiancée character is clearly a fake and venomous villain from the start (they refer to her as Cruella De Vil). “She’s a conniving, vicious little two-faced brat,” she notes of her soon-to-be stepdaughter. In both cases, the most memorable and humorous scene in the movies is a camping trip in which the twins try to reveal the fiancée’s true colors through encounters with lizards, mosquito and cougar repellant, and hungry bears. Eventually the children convince their parents that they need them both equally – “I’m going into my crazy mixed up teenage years and I’ll be the only girl I know without a mother to fight with” – and a reunion is the only option.

The remake isn’t quite Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but it has so few differences that it may as well be. Director Nancy Meyers (who also remade Father of the Bride) included some updated elements – two campers have a conversation about getting no cell phone service (“How are we going to live?”). There’s also poker, skinny dipping, Abbey Road, Taxi Driver, and positioning the divorcee mother as a successful fashion designer. It no longer includes the claymation titles of the original, or the Let’s Get Together sing-along (though a character does hum a few lines). The film is so near its predecessor that Disney once again contracted the screenwriting duties to David Swift, who wrote and directed the original. The dialogue is a bit cornier (perhaps because it didn’t change with the times) and the drama is more emphasized (though the twist on the ending is nice). One element that did receive a notable improvement was that of the servants (Lisa Ann Walter and Simon Kunz), who are much better characters here and even receive their own romantic subplot. I would have liked to see a return of the bourbon-drinking reverend (Leo G. Carroll), who incidentally loves the dramatic triangle in the original and is never without a smile during the charade. Dennis Quaid is a great replacement for the John Wayne-ish father (Brian Keith) from the original, but I far prefer Maureen O’Hara to the remake’s Natasha Richardson.

The gimmick of both films is that the twins are played by one actress (Hayley Mills and Lindsay Lohan, respectively). Perhaps the biggest obstacle filmmakers had to face for the remake was to find a lead to replace the Golden Globe-nominated Mills, whose signature bitten-lip smile and English accent graced several Disney film strips before and after The Parent Trap. Their 10-city search for the lead led them to an unknown, Lohan, for her screen debut. Without the luxury of being born in Britain or previous acting experience, Lohan surprisingly continues Mills’ charm and the command of four distinct accents: British and American, obviously, plus flawed versions of the same for when they imitate each other. The trick photography shots required of the original, which are obviously much stronger in the remake, were groundbreaking at the time, and still look pretty good. Originally the film only called for a few of the shots, but when Walt Disney saw the convincing effect displayed on screen, he demanded more. It must have worked, because versions of the same movie seem to come year after year.

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