Disney Made the Perfect Rom Com for Kids with ‘The Parent Trap’

The charm of the 1998 remake still dazzles today, but its surprising sophistication is much clearer decades later.
The Parent Trap
By  · Published on July 30th, 2018

Growing up, there were few kids’ movies as sophisticated as 1998’s The Parent Trap. From the Nat King Cole jazz song that opens the film to the romantic comedy elements that were usually off limits to anyone under thirteen, Disney’s remake of its 1961 original actually respected its young audience. The Parent Trap shouldn’t just be remembered for launching Lindsey Lohan’s career when more than 20 years later, its timelessness and substance can still be appreciated by fans after they’ve grown up.

The plot of Nancy Meyer’s remake is nothing new. It wasn’t even recycled just once. Before the 1961 version, there was Erich Kästner’s 1949 novel Lottie and Lisa. Before that, there was Three Smart Girls, a 1936 drama with a similar story. Despite its constant reworking, The Parent Trap holds onto the gimmick of twins switching places to rekindle a romance. The 1998 version sees Hallie and Annie agree to live with each other’s estranged parent after they find out they’re sisters at a summer camp. Disguised as each other, they devise a plan to get their parents back together. Once their father is about to get remarried to a gold digger, Hallie and Annie’s plan gets out of control. Chaos ensues, but in typical romantic comedy fashion, true (familial) love is the conclusion.

Amongst the childish schemes, The Parent Trap tends to feel more like a romantic comedy than a typical Disney movie. The opening images put an emphasis on the by-the-numbers love story between Hallie and Annie’s parents. Even though The Parent Trap doesn’t conventionally start like a romantic comedy, with a meet-cute and etc.,  the same tension found between two characters in love in a rom-com is certainly in The Parent Trap. Hallie and Annie’s parents, Nick and Elizabeth, refuse to admit they’re still in love. Denial is the first step in the romantic comedy love process. There’s someone else in the way of their relationship as well, this time it’s the determined Meredith trying to steal Nick’s attention. Every complication leads up to the final moment, where Nick and Elizabeth come together and realize they are made for each other. Despite this being their second try at love, their story still follows the same pattern as a new romance in a rom-com. There’s even a B-story romance between the help! The twist is that it’s just told from a little girl’s point of view.

Despite looking at the love story through a kid’s eyes, Nancy Meyers directed this version of The Parent Trap with the truth that kids notice a lot more than what is normally in children’s movies. This movie doesn’t shy away from the very real topics of divorce, remarriage, and even sex. Part of the gimmick of the movie is that Hallie and Annie are a little too smart compared to the adults they’re tricking but in that comedic cleverness, the movie shows that young girls can understand complicated subjects or the behaviors of adults. Until then, few movies and television shows embraced that other than Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood. The twins may be extremely smart for a laugh, but the audience is also made up of young girls noticing a lot of those allusions to mature themes. The Parent Trap was the first Disney movie to ever show someone smoking and visibly drunk. Nancy Meyers wasn’t afraid to shy away from aspects of adult life that many young girls probably witness in real life, but don’t entirely understand. Many of us learned from what we saw on screen, and that shouldn’t exclude details we notice in real life but adults thought we weren’t ready for. The story itself invites that by showing two girls trying to rekindle their parents’ relationship, the first example of love we know. That’s why The Parent Trap remains one of the few Disney films we don’t have to feel too guilty about returning to now that we’ve grown up.

Another reason The Parent Trap never gets old is its attention to classic detail, creating a timeless charm that could be of any era. Great jazz, including Glenn Miller, plays throughout. Additionally, to an actual image of Audrey Hepburn, her essence can be felt in the scenes in London, especially the small photoshoot with Hallie-dressed-as-Annie reminiscent of Hepburn in Funny Face. There are several references to timeless figures, like one of the girls’ impressions of Elvis. The adorable scene where Nick sees Elizabeth for the first time as he’s getting in the elevator was constructed to look like an old movie. Dennis Quaid, who plays Nick, modeled his reaction directly from James Garner’s reaction in the 1963 movie Move Over, Darling. Garner modeled his reaction from Cary Grant’s in My Favorite Wife (1940).

While the story dates back to the 1930s, the style of The Parent Trap also embraces the best parts of the past. This timeless feel could be the reason why it’s much more popular than the 1961 version, despite the original being nominated for two Oscars. Even just looking at promotional pictures of the 1961 film, it’s obvious that it is very much of its time, which can become dated and less appreciated as years pass. The 1998 version has aged better because it embraces a classic style that people can enjoy in any era. Its timeless style, sophisticated nature, and respect for its target audience are why The Parent Trap is just as fun to watch as it was in 1998.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_