Categories: Film Reviews

‘The Imaginary’ Review: Creative Anime World-Building Bumps Up Against an Often Too Frantic Energy

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There are two worlds that we live in. One is driven by friendly creations and limitless possibilities that are only limited by a child’s imagination, while the other is reality; the adults have all forgotten about their fictional friends. This leaves our imaginary friends (who are real, by the way) wandering alone without purpose, looking for a new child to be with.

Two-time Oscar nominee Yoshiaki Nishimura – for the films The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There – returns with a brand new anime film titled The Imaginary. Based on the 2014 novel of the same name by A.F. Harold, The Imaginary explores the relationship between a little girl named Amanda (Evie Kiszel) and her imaginary human friend Rudger (Louie Rudge-Buchanan).

Minutes into our story, it is clear that Amanda’s imagination is powerful. Together with Rudger, they embark on the greatest adventures that go from sky to ocean, as the film effectively takes advantage of the animation medium to conjure up anything that can be drawn. We also get a taste of where Amanda’s creativity comes from. She lives happily with her mother Lizzie (Hayley Atwell), who runs a colorful (albeit failing) bookstore with a wide variety of subjects. As the reality of the family’s situation is catching up to Amanda and Rudger, they meet the mysterious Mr. Bunting (Emmy nominee Jeremy Swift), a sinister man who reveals that not only can he see all imaginaries, but he sets out to eat them to extend his own life. The encounter results in a terrible accident that results in Amanda falling into a coma and Rudger slowly disappearing from the real world. Rudger is then quickly swept into “the town of Imaginaries,” a sanctuary for all imaginary friends, led by a human-looking imaginary named Emily (Sky Katz), who looks very much like Mary from Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

The film’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Scene by scene, there is always something happening that either puts our characters in a bad situation or does some world-building for the audience. It’s a movie that constantly moves, unafraid if the audience can’t keep up. And therein lies the first of many problems, that is the film’s handling of tone. When anything can seemingly happen because it’s imaginary, any newly introduced character or element can suddenly clash with how we are emotionally feeling from the story. More than once, the film shifts from tearjerker drama to straight up horror in a matter of seconds, leaving us unable to feel any emotion and are instead just left confused as to what is happening. Most of this problem stems from Mr. Bunting’s own imaginary friend, who is a straight-up onyrō, a girl with long black hair ripped straight out of the Japanese Ring and Grudge movies (I am not exaggerating this). Every single time she appeared on screen, it felt like being yanked into a completely different movie, and it does not get better as the film goes on. It is, without a doubt, one of the more baffling decisions I’ve seen in a while.

Another head-scratching moment involves Rudger returning to the real world in the form of another girl’s imaginary, but since that girl sees her imaginary as a female ballerina, Rudger is slowly transformed into a girl – the film even changes the voice actor. Furthermore, as Rudger becomes the ballerina, he begins to lose his memory of who he is and what he’s in the real world for. But before this even becomes a real danger to him, Rudger is quickly saved by his friends. He snaps out of it and returns to his male voice and real-world mission, though still in a ballerina costume. This all happens in the matter of mere minutes. No time to think about whether we just saw a queer/trans allegory unfolding or not because hurry, the plot is moving in another direction. This may be just one example, but it goes to show how The Imaginary quickly loses focus when the creativity runs rampant and unchecked. Before we have any chance to make sense of what’s happening and what it could mean on a thematic level, the film has already moved on to the next scene and the next weird fantastical thing.

The film’s frantic energy doesn’t just hurt the tone but also its storytelling. Too often, the script is burdened to explain the logic behind imaginaries to the audience. How does the sanctuary work? How long can imaginaries last when they’re forgotten? Can imaginaries forget other imaginaries? Is there a difference between an imaginary being forgotten and an imaginary being eaten? Do imaginaries leave a physical impact on the real world (since a real person can apparently eat an imaginary)? Every time the film explains something to the audience, your reaction is a tossup between “Oh cool!” and “Oh, interesting. But… huh… then… wait… hold on…” It’s a script that relies on introducing a new rule every time to explain the current scene that’s happening. Even if the rule “makes sense,” it still feels like a plot that’s making itself up as it goes along.

Ironically, it is the slow and quiet moments that land the best; moments of dialogue or revelation between two characters, where they have a chance to understand each other and where they come from a bit better. Scenes like these give the film a chance to offer some deep and thoughtful commentary about growing up, how a child becomes an adult, and how adults are likely to forget their creativity and inner child. Though the film’s plot is centered around Amanda’s relationship with Rudger, the story builds a much more interesting relationship between Amanda and her mother and between Rudger and her mother (the scenes where Rudger tries to get Lizzie to see him are great, leading to a resolution that genuinely caught me off guard).

And then, of course, the film is extremely colorful to look at. Not only does the film have a unique watercolor look that feels like it’s pulled right out of a children’s storybook, but there is a lot of thought put into the design of a child’s imagination. A particular sequence in space near the middle of the film put a smile on my face, when I noticed that the spaceship is still cleverly made out of cardboard. From color to lighting to texture, The Imaginary is an achievement. There are also a handful of imaginary friends in the film who I took a liking to. Their designs are cute and memorable, and their moments in finding the next human child to be with are sweet, even when we just saw Ryan Reynolds do this earlier in the year in John Krasinski’s IF.

If one were to take the best parts of IF and combine them with the best parts of The Imaginary, you would get the perfect film about imaginary friends and getting older. The world-building is very creative from a design standpoint. The imaginary sanctuary is like every visual artist’s concept art put together. But too often, the logic of the world is shaky, coming into play only when a plot point requires an explanation instead of helping the world feel lived in. Most of all, the world doesn’t help layer the characters, their motivations, and what they’re feeling. On a storytelling front, it’s too scattershot and tonally inconsistent. The fact that the climactic resolution still made me feel something shows that the filmmakers knew what they wanted to say at the end of this story. I just wish the journey to get there was a little less bumpy.

Grade: C+

The Imaginary world premiered at the Annecy Film Festival and will be released by Netflix on July 5, 2024.

Kevin L. Lee

Kevin L. Lee is an Asian-American critic, producer, screenwriter and director based in New York City. A champion of the creative process, Kevin has consulted, written, and produced several short films from development to principal photography to festival premiere. He has over 10 years of marketing and writing experience in film criticism and journalism, ranging from blockbusters to foreign indie films, and has developed a reputation of being “an omnivore of cinema.” He recently finished his MFA in film producing at Columbia University and is currently working in film and TV development for production companies.

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