‘IF’ Review: Can You Believe In An Imaginary Mess?

Aaron Neuwirth reviews IF, an original, good-looking, yet messy fantasy film from writer/director John Krasinski.
User Rating: 4

Putting trust in dream logic and a filmmaker’s imagination is a tricky conceit. With a movie like IF, writer/director John Krasinski asks the audience to go along with him for a fantasy/comedy incorporating dozens of animated characters into a live-action feature for the sake of a melodrama made lighter by nature of the age group it is targeting. The film is not quite Pixar or any number of Studio Ghibli features as far as having adults feeling like they’ve been put onto an emotional rollercoaster while their kids laugh along at the bright, colorful characters, but it certainly aims to hit at key themes while delivering visual splendor. I only wish I didn’t have so many questions involving choices being made to execute on all of IF’s ideas, let alone concerns for how saccharine it all feels.

The film centers on Bea (Cailey Fleming), a young girl who has grown up with loving parents who have encouraged her creativity. Currently, however, Bea’s mom has passed on, and her dad (Krasinski) is in the hospital awaiting medical treatment. For now, Bea is living with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw) and seems less inclined to embrace her artistic side. That is until she discovers the ability to see people’s imaginary friends (IFs). And she’s not alone. Her neighbor, Cal (Ryan Reynolds), also possesses this ability. Over time, they decide to focus on helping kids and their IFs reunite.

See Also: ‘Wendell & Wild’ Review: Demons Be Schemin’ In This Terrific Selick Flick

IF

This central conceit allows the film to spend its budget on unique creations, including Blue (voiced by Steve Carell), a giant Grimace-like creature with a sneezing problem. There’s also a human-ladybug-butterfly hybrid voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge that’s not as traumatizing as it sounds. Plus, the late Louis Gossett Jr. provided the voice for Lewis, an elderly bear. The list goes on for various appearances from stars including Matt Damon, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Emily Blunt, Richard Jenkins, Awkwafina, Bradley Cooper, George Clooney, and more. They play everything from a flower to an alligator to a marshmallow man to a block of ice in a glass of water.

Needless to say, plenty of animated antics are taking place in IF. That includes any excuse possible to feature choreographed, musically-infused sequences. I can’t say that these scenes made a huge impression on me. Still, I can admire the craft that goes into several notably extended scenarios involving elaborate visual effects work and the seamless bridging of multiple environments. The film also happens to have been shot by Spielberg’s regular DP, Janusz Kaminski, and scored by Michael Giacchino.

I’m noting all of this, as it definitely feels as though Paramount Pictures gave Krasinski a blank check (within reason) to dive into a passion project following his work on turning A Quiet Place 1 and 2 into a new studio franchise. So here we have Krasinski putting in an unfiltered version of what’s on his mind, what he wants to entertain audiences with, and his efforts to do so with help from the best in the business when it comes to how to make this film (along with he and his wife asking for tons of favors from friends to record a few lines). Yes, I’m speaking a bit facetiously (for all I know, Jon Stewart demanded millions for his brief role as “Robot”), but it’s always interesting to see what comes from this sort of earnest attempt at delivering something original and emotionally raw.

Looking at Krasinski’s films, while not another horror movie, IF does fall into place with his previous two features. We are again focused on a child coming into their own and making certain realizations regarding the real world amid a fantastical scenario. At the same time, parental figures are coming to understand that in order to know their child is alright, they’ll have to realize that letting them fend for themselves is just as important as always wanting to care for them. Now, the only real difference is that IF trades in the culmination of a lot of rising action that has built to an alien showdown with schmaltzy scenes where characters trade teary-eyed looks with one another in an effort to deliver the family comedy equivalent of The Sixth Sense.

It is frustrating that I didn’t find this film to be as effective as it could have been. IF certainly has appeal, and I won’t be surprised if it becomes a hit with audiences (and boy, could we use an original, decently budgeted, live-action feature to actually do well in theaters). However, the effort that has gone into this unfortunately shakes out like a lesser effort from Steven Spielberg (think Hook), and at least those films benefit from being directed by Spielberg. Under Krasinski, the messiness that comes with an imaginary world full of characters becomes problematic when I can’t quite get a grip on how stuff works. That’s not to say I need the film to stop dead in its tracks and tell me everything, but as a viewer, I kept getting pulled out of the film, feeling as though I needed to bridge one too many gaps to make sense of what was being presented to me.

Outside of this, I don’t feel as though IF did enough to blend the imaginary and real-world scenarios. Instead, we have a generically clean New York inhabited by IFs, but rarely is Bea facing anything resembling stakes she can control or awkward encounters between real people and the things they cannot see. At the same time, Ryan Reynolds has charisma for days, but I can’t say he’s doing much here beyond being a tagalong with lower energy than one may expect. There’s a reason for this, and I’m not the biggest fan of the typical Reynolds schtick, so it’s not as though I don’t respect him changing it up a bit. At the same time, it speaks to IF trying to balance too many tones as far as delivering the joy and fun of these imaginary friend creations as well as the story’s weepy side.

While not without its charm (and surely some of the many celebrity voices will put a smile on one’s face), IF only goes so far in bringing some weight to the material. It offers some respectable components and looks pretty good, but it was a bit too all over the place for my liking without having a story that brought it all together and hit me in the feels the way it intended to. Add to that various story developments that felt more like inevitable reveals rather than interesting turns for the script, and we have a filmmaker-focused product that wasn’t lacking in effort but didn’t feel all that ambitious either.

IF opens in theaters on May 17, 2024.

4
Poor
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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