‘The Imaginary’ Review: Beautiful Visuals and An Emotional Story Creates Childlike Escapism

Michael Lee reviews the beautifully animated film from Studio Ponoc, The Imaginary, coming to Netflix on July 5, 2024.
User Rating: 8.5

The power of a child’s imagination can be incredible, especially when used as a coping mechanism to help process grief. Studio Ponoc‘s latest, The Imaginary, takes a child’s imagination and creativity and brings them into reality through Studio Ghibli-inspired animation. In a year when the concept of imaginary friends becomes cinematic, the film paints a picture of the beauty of creativity and the ruminations of existential dread with heart, humor, and honesty, even if it feels familiar in its execution.

That’s not to say that The Imaginary is derivative or uninspiring, far from it. Directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, using a screenplay written by Yoshiaki Nishimura, based on A. F. Harrold‘s children’s novel, with Emily Gravett supplying the illustrations, the animated film follows Amanda (Evie Kiszel), a young girl who imagined her best friend Rudger (Louie Rudge-Buchanan) – yes, that’s Rudger, with a “u” not an “o,” in the wake of her father’s death. Together, they promise to protect each other, never leave, and never cry. The bond allows the two to go on grand adventures in snowy fields dressed in Christmas lights created by Amanda’s imagination. Cardboard boxes become great big sleds, and a stuffed animal named after her mom’s favorite beer comes to life to help pull it. There’s a yeti bringing presents. Beyond that, Rudger is someone that Amanda can confide in even if her mom, Lizzie (Hayley Atwell), or anyone else can’t see her. Lizzie thinks of Rudger as just something to district Amanda during this challenging time, which helps, considering she has to close her husband’s bookstore and find a new job.

When a big-nosed Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Mr. Bunting (Jeremy Swift) and his silent doll-like imaginary dressed in funeral black pay a visit to the struggling bookshop, it sets the stage for what’s at stake for these two, particularly Rudger, who is at the center of the story. The villain’s imaginary attack on Rudger on a dark and stormy night. Since the concept of imagination expands time and space, the sequence is much more prominent in scale and feels longer to get through, with an extra dash of heightened tension to add to the drama. Again, because none of the adults can see the imagination, they chalk Amanda’s screams and fear to her being afraid of lightning and thunder.

See Also: Review: ‘Onward’ Finds Pixar On A Spirited Quest

Though Amanda isn’t wholly ignorant of what’s happening, she is just a child. As Amanda becomes more aware of what’s happening and starts to accept her mother’s words, Rudger’s place in the world comes into question. Since an imaginary dies when reality hits, what purpose does Rudger have if Amanda gets older and has no more use for him? After a heated argument with his friend, a contemplative Rudger heads to the roof and sees another imaginary starting to fade because his physical friend doesn’t need him anymore.

Days later, Lizzie takes Amanda to the shop, and Amanda brings Rudger along. As the two wait for Lizzie to return, they reencounter Mr. Bunting and his imaginary. Like any child who sees a scary stranger, they leave the car and run to Lizzie without looking at traffic. Unfortunately, this leads to a tragic accident where Amanda gets hit by a car. With no conscious Amanda to anchor Rudger, the imaginary begins to fade. That is until other imaginaries come to his rescue. There’s the wise ZinZan (Kal Penn), a plucky goggled Emily (Sky Katz) who has a winged suit to fly, a silly pink hippo Snowflake (Roger Craig Smith), a fearless skeleton Cruncher-of-Bones (Courtenay Taylor), and an old dog named Fridge (LeVar Burton). They help Rudger acclimate to his situation and explain what he must do to survive in a world without Amanda.

Rudger is in awe of this new world but refuses to accept that Amanda has moved on. He is adamant about reuniting with his best friend and would risk life and limb to make that happen, even if that means being captured and eaten by Mr. Bunting.

The Imaginary effortlessly captures both the joys of creativity and the tragedies of reality. It can get bogged down in its exposition and become overly complicated with world-building. Still, the visually stunning animation used to move the imaginaries to and fro from different imaginations, reality, and everything else in between is worth mentioning. Surviving imaginaries pick up one-day jobs to be temporary imaginary friends from a bulletin board at a local library. It’s an exciting part of their day, with plenty of fanfare and celebration to go with it, that goes unnoticed by the adult humans reading books. Of course, Rudger still longs to be Amanda’s friend and often looks for her friends or acquaintances in hopes that he could Inception-style implant an idea to go to the hospital where she is staying.

As Rudger learns more and more about himself and the imaginary community, Mr. Bunting and his imagination are still on the prowl, hunting for any lost or abandoned imaginaries to feed on. Since the imaginaries are childlike, they see Mr. Bunting as a boogeyman. Emily tries to assure them they have nothing to fear and tells Rudger that the person he sees isn’t real. Additionally, his refusal to accept that Amanda doesn’t need him anymore is a sign that he can’t accept the reality of the situation that he is in.

Death isn’t something that one can talk about to a child. Though the film isn’t afraid to address that fact in small and easily digestible bits, it is an uncomfortable subject matter. So you may want to watch The Imaginary before you show it to a child. The more nightmarish, fantastical visuals can be frightening as well. The imagery of Mr. Bunting trying to swallow an imaginary whole is scary enough. Also, his black-hair, black-dressed, doll-like imaginary who expresses no emotions is enough to conjure up nightmares or at least pull the covers over your eyes. However, it’s not clear why Mr. Bunting has to eat Rudger specifically other than the fact that he has a notably different kind of scent from all the others.

There are also aspects of the film that feel contrived and manipulative despite its heart being in the right place or that serve as vital pieces of exposition to Amanda coping with the loss of her father and trying to be there for her mourning mother. It may be too little on the nose, but then again, the film does take place from the point of view of a child or at least a childlike imaginary friend. Watching Lizzie fall to her knees sobbing at the possibility that she could lose her entire family is a difficult watch and maybe even more challenging to explain to a child who doesn’t understand these concepts about mortality. All this does is motivate parents to protect their children at all costs. So don’t be surprised if the waterworks turn on during those poignant moments.

Even with its overly complicated rules, The Imaginary conveys its message about the beauty of a child’s imagination and the dread of existentialism effortlessly. It takes the idea of reading books to a child and makes it feel more cinematic – an idea that shows itself when Burton’s character starts to speak. His kind and noncondescending voice is reminiscent of all the Reading Rainbow episodes I consumed as a kid. The endless creativity of a child’s imagination coming to life on screen never gets dull because none of the adventures are the same, but all are pure of heart and full of innocence. What’s more, it’s not afraid to address the certainty of a friendship between a person and their imagination coming to an end. That kind of honesty is hard to come by, especially in an animated film that addresses imagination and existentialism. Though Studio Ponoc’s The Imaginary won’t be able to escape the comparisons to the iconic Studio Ghibli, they are on their way to doing great things and becoming more distinguished.

The Imaginary will be available to stream on Netflix starting July 5, 2024.

Written by
Michael Lee has covered the film industry for over the past decade for sites like Geeks of Doom and That’s It LA. He looks forward to all kinds of films of all sizes whether it's the commercial blockbusters or small independent fare. But what he is most interested in is pushing for more diversity and representation, whether it is on screen, behind the camera, or at the top of a studio office.

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