The Parent Trap Revisited

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When most modern audiences think of the Disney film The Parent Trap, they may think first of the 1998 film of that name, a blend of romantic comedy and tween slapstick that introduced the world to Lindsay Lohan and helped solidify Nancy Meyers as not just a successful screenwriter, but an equally talented director of high-class, low-stakes comedy.

But The Parent Trap is a remake of another Disney film of the same name. The original film celebrated its 60th anniversary this month, so what better time to revisit it?

The Pitch

Fans of the 1998 film may be surprised to learn exactly how faithful the remake is to the original film, itself based on a German novel called Lottie and Lisa by Erich Kastner. As in the remake, two teenage girls who inexplicably look exactly like each other meet for the first time at a sleepaway summer camp, bonding as friends before they realize that they’re identical twins separated by their parents as infants. Here, it’s Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers, both played by Hayley Mills, who decide to concoct the eponymous plan to get their mother and father (Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith) back together romantically after having divorced years ago.

But the real pitch of this movie is just like the remake. You cannot make a two-hour comedy (fun fact: both the 1961 and 1998 films are exactly 128 minutes long) about two identical twins from different backgrounds without hoping beyond hope that you have a talented enough young actress to pull off the constant switching back and forth. So truly, the pitch of The Parent Trap is Hayley Mills.

Mills was one of a handful of young actors and actresses who worked in the stable of Walt Disney Pictures in the 1960s, along with Tommy Kirk, Annette Funicello (who’s one of the two singers of the title song over the Rankin-Bass-style animated opening credits), and a very young Kurt Russell. A year prior to The Parent Trap, Mills had starred as the title character in Disney’s Pollyanna, a period drama bolstered as much by her Academy Juvenile Award-winning performance (yes, there was once a time when this was an award the Oscars handed out to deserving young performers) as by the work of adult actors like Karl Malden.

But that film had proved that Mills was a powerful enough and effectively emotional actress to work with legitimate legends. The Parent Trap is a bit more of a balancing act, a modern comedy where she would have to portray a typical American kid straight out of her dad’s California ranch and a more high-toned Bostonian with a touch of British in her voice. Having actors like O’Hara, Keith, and Leo G. Carroll in The Parent Trap helps. But this movie can only work if Mills works.

The Movie

And just as Lindsay Lohan is the primary reason why the remake is even remotely enjoyable, so too is the case here with Hayley Mills. As surprising as it may be to realize that Nancy Meyers’ remake follows the original through to its finale in as many ways as possible, the reason is clear: the formula works very well. If you’ve seen enough Disney live-action comedies of the 1960s, The Parent Trap really does seem like an outlier if only because the wackier hijinks are never too wacky, and they never take up too much of the film’s running time. Arguably, this film (like its follow-up) didn’t need to be nearly 130 minutes long. But that runtime allows The Parent Trap’s pacing to be more patient, and to allow the characters of Sharon and Susan valuable time to not only connect with each other, but with the respective parents they’ve missed for more than a decade.

Coming from David Swift, the same writer/director who made Pollyanna, The Parent Trap is a light and frothy film. It’s frankly something of a shame that more Disney comedies of the era eschewed the patience of this film, and went for more raucous slapstick sequences. The story isn’t complex, per se; from the start, it’s plenty obvious that Maggie and Mitch, the estranged parents of these twins, are going to re-connect romantically, just as it’s obvious that Mitch’s gold-digging fiancee is one-dimensionally evil but it will take an extreme instance for Mitch to realize it. But The Parent Trap is a fun, sweet, and effective story. It’s also a fun glimpse into early work by Richard and Robert Sherman, the songwriters behind so many of the most beloved Disney songs of all time; coming a few months after their first song for a Disney film (The Absent-Minded Professor), their work here, such as in the upbeat duo song “Let’s Get Together,” is a sign of the musical joy they would create later on.

Of course, if Mills is the biggest key to why this movie works (especially in the first half), then the joint talents and charms of Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith are why the film’s back half work so well. Keith was at an earlier phase of his career, but cuts a more effectively swaggering character than the Dennis Quaid character in the remake; he’s a bit more rough-and-tumble as a dad, and it’s thanks to the rugged work Keith brings to the project. And what can be said about the luminous charm and vivacious spirit of Maureen O’Hara that hasn’t been said by plenty of other critics and fans time and time before? If there’s anything that doesn’t work about The Parent Trap, it’s that literally anyone could hold a candle to O’Hara as a romantic rival. Of course Mitch and Maggie are going to reunite, because how could anyone say no to her?

The Legacy

The legacy of The Parent Trap is pretty undeniable, although as noted at the top, the 1998 remake is more well-known among modern audiences. That film was made in the same spirit as the 1996 remake of 101 Dalmatians by the studio: a fully live-action remake boasting a big name or two both behind and in front of the camera that would traffic in nostalgia to the parents in the crowd who were themselves children when the originals opened. But even before the 1998 remake, the legacy of the 1961 original was to inspire sequels.

Yes, “sequels,” plural. There are, in fact, three sequels to the original Parent Trap, all of which were made and released by Disney in the late 1980s. Mills returned for all three, none of which were exactly made in the vein of “two identical twins meet each other for the first time,” but more in the vein of “Kids create wacky hijinks for their parents.” All three of the films aired as part of the weekly Disney TV show, pre-The Wonderful World of Disney, right around the same time that Mills was headlining Good Morning, Miss Bliss, the show that eventually turned into Saved by the Bell. (Did you just learn that Hayley Mills was in the show that became Saved by the Bell? Well, you learn something new every day, so you’re welcome.)

For as many Disney films were produced in the 1960s, only a select few have stood the test of time, especially in the live-action variety. (It’s worth noting that another of the 1990s-era Disney remakes was Flubber, derived from The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber. And a few years later, Lohan would star in a new Love Bug movie.) The Parent Trap stands out now because it both feels extremely Disney-like and a cut above the average family film. The original film may be a bit creakier now than it was in the 1960s (as when Sharon and Susan agree that they’ve been “gypped,” itself an offensive term to the Romani community, but one not worth meriting the content warning on Disney+), but its bones are strong, thanks to some key performances that elevate it above traditional family fare. If only more Disney ’60s movies were this good.

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