The Imaginary Review | Lost and Found Department

by Andrew Parker

Yoshiyuki Momose’s dazzling animated fantasy The Imaginary is a marginally better take on a storyline similar to one found in a marginally decent film from just over a month ago. On a surface level, this story of an abandoned and lost imaginary friend comes with unavoidable comparisons to John Krasinski’s live action family comedy IF, even though both are working from different source materials. It’s a curious bit of timing to release The Imaginary in North America after something similar has already blown up at the domestic box office (and since Momose’s film opened in Asian markets months ago), but there’s enough room for two heartfelt films about growing up, experiencing loss, and fearing an uncertain future.

Amanda is a young girl who lives with her mother above the family’s bookstore, which is about to go out of business following the death of her father. For the past several months she has been interacting and playing with an imaginary friend that only she can see, a young and adventurous lad named Rudger. After a falling out with Amanda that leads to a terrifying accident, the boy’s creator starts to forget about her imaginary companion. Rudger then makes his way to The Town of Imaginaries, a constantly changing and magical place where abandoned friends can live in harmony without the fear of disappearing forever. They also function as a temp agency of sorts, with various imaginary friends taking jobs with kids who need extra companions on a short term basis. But these magical creatures and figments have to stay one step ahead of the evil Mr. Bunting. Flanked by his own frightening looking hench-girl, Mr. Bunting is an immortal who feeds off the magic and power of imaginary friends. 

Momose, best known as an animator on the likes of Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies, and Ni No Kuni, pulls out all the visual stops to ensure The Imaginary looks appropriately wondrous. In addition to a wide range of creatures that range from human to outrageous looking monsters, Momose uses the shifting visual nature of The Town of Imaginaries to its full advantage. There are pastel tinted skies, lush green valleys, intricate architecture, and constantly morphing landscapes that appear to live and breathe on their own. The Imaginary is up to the standard that its production company, Studio Ponoc, has already firmly established with the likes of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Modest Heroes, and Tomorrow’s Leaves. Although still in its infancy, Studio Ponoc is proving to be a major leader in the waning field of hand drawn animation.

The story, based on a book by A.F. Harrold and illustrator Emily Gravett, boasts not only a love for creativity, but also for literature and learning, which is a nice sentiment in an era where most movies aimed at kids and families offer little more than pretty colours, meme-worthy gags, and tiresome dad jokes. (It is 1000% better than this week’s Despicable Me 4, which isn’t even something I would ever call a “movie,” as it’s just an assembly of unfunny bits aiming at the lowest common denominator.) There’s a great message within The Imaginary about how work and play can become synonymous with one another if approached in the right way, and how too much play or work can be hazardous to mental health. These are all great lessons to teach young people, but as The Imaginary moves ahead with its overall plot, it runs the risk of losing the audience that might be enamoured with it the most.

The Imaginary gets quite dark and sinister at times, in spite of its frequently sunny appearance, and the villain sometimes crosses the line between being cartoonishly nasty and being outright nightmare fuel. The plot becomes a bit convoluted and might require some explanation as to what’s going on for kids and adults alike. The Imaginary takes some big plot swings and twists that are certainly unexpected and often intriguing, but it leads to a narrative that’s longer than it needs to be; a case where adding additional plot doesn’t add more substance, but instead serves to underline what’s already there in the first place.

But even as the world and characters evolve into something different, The Imaginary hooks the viewer by presenting scenarios where anything and everything is possible and nothing is off limits. Even as I was growing weary and skeptical with the evolution of the story, my emotional investment in these creatures and their human counterparts remained resolutely solid. By the end, I was legitimately crying at the beauty of it all, so even if it isn’t a perfect film, The Imaginary still hits the right notes in all the spaces that count the most.

The Imaginary is available to stream on Netflix in North American starting Friday, July 5, 2024.

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