IF You’re After a Baby-Brained Pixar Wannabe, John Krasinski Provides

Movies Reviews John Krasinski
IF You’re After a Baby-Brained Pixar Wannabe, John Krasinski Provides

You can sense the cancer in IF coming a mile away. Whimsical home movies depicting an intensely happy family, writing-therapy narration about “the stories we tell ourselves,” a director seemingly hell-bent on bringing Pixar aesthetics into live-action… within seconds, adults in the room will understand that it won’t be long before that unspeaking mom on screen is donning a head scarf and the home movies cut out. Kids will be more surprised, especially if they were sold a zany comedy where Ryan Reynolds clowns around with a fuzzy Monsters, Inc. version of Steve Carell, playing a purple imaginary friend (“IF” for short) called Blue.

The purple creature is called Blue because “his” kid, the one who originally dreamed him up and named him, was colorblind. Nevermind that a child young enough to make up an imaginary friend would be perfectly likely to say one color but mean another, or that this is not generally how colorblindness works, anyway. IF, written and directed by John Krasinski, seems to have absorbed from Pixar primarily the idea that it is funny and eventually somehow moving when magical creatures and/or made-up worlds have quotidian-sounding rules to follow. In a particularly literal-minded touch, Krasinski extends this vision to jokes – hence the colorblindness to explain Blue, hence the “weird” IFs with pedestrian backstories. Everything in IF has its place, even when nothing makes any particular sense. The movie gets so wrapped up in sorting through the whimsical bureaucracy of discarded IFs that it forgets to create an actual world to hide it under.

For example: At the beginning of the movie, 12-year-old Bea (Cailey Fleming) visits New York City, to stay with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw) while her father (John Krasinski) checks into the hospital. The movie makes weirdly cagey references to the fact that he’s there for heart surgery, seemingly convinced that withholding information is always more emotionally powerful than making it clear – even if it creates a lot of confusion among those pesky adults, wondering why on earth a man has what seems like a weeklong hospital stay before actually undergoing his life-saving procedure. Briefly and obliquely creating the impression that Bea’s dad might be in a psych ward feels like an unnecessarily dark twist on those joking asides aimed at parents in animated movies.

With his confoundingly expansive downtime, the father tries to bring levity to his situation. Bea, who has already lost her mother to montage cancer, isn’t having it; she’s 12 years old, she says, and no longer a kid who needs everything to be turned into fun. As played by Fleming, Bea seems so levelheaded and even-tempered that it’s hard to yearn, as we’re prompted to, for her to rediscover her inner child. IF bravely persists in the face of adolescence, introducing Bea to Cal (Ryan Reynolds), who she first glimpses at her grandmother’s apartment building, talking to a series of shadowy figures. These turn out to be lonely IFs, primarily but not limited to the aforementioned Blue and the daintier Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who looks a bit like she could have hung out with Bosko and Honey in the earliest Looney Tunes.

The animation on these and many other celeb-voiced characters from the Reynolds-Krasinski rolodex, blending a variety of cartoony designs into live-action settings, is impressive. So are the settings themselves, shot by Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, at one point shining his trademark white beams of light beatifically across a Coney Island amusement park; Luna Park has rarely looked prettier, and the lighting in IF outshines plenty of big-budget spectacles. But unlike A Quiet Place, the emotional horror movie that must have given Krasinski the confidence to try his hand at Amblin-esque wonder, the technical craft doesn’t lift up his underlying material, which sputters and wheezes like a Pixar project moments away from a mid-production teardown.

First, Bea volunteers to help a reluctant Cal with his nascent matchmaking job, finding new kids to pair with the forgotten IFs who bide their time in a magical retirement home but will supposedly disappear, Bing Bong-style, if they lay dormant for too long. (In just one of many punches pulled, Krasinski never really follows through on this threat. He likes the rules more than the consequences.) Later, they try to reunite the IFs with their original, now-grown companions. Despite the blasé recitation of various IF-related parameters, no one seems to know how to do either of these things, nor does the movie ever admit a truth that threatens to spoil the whole enterprise: Imaginary friends are generated by developing brains, typically preschool-aged, as a byproduct of play. They aren’t forgotten around adolescence, or due to traumatic family events. They’re placed aside by kids in elementary school once they become more socialized. IF rebrands a very specific (and relatively brief) psychological phenomenon as a magical, E.T.-like bond that is paradoxically easy to forget about completely.

Is it fair to nitpick a family-friendly fantasy movie on child-development grounds? Reader, I believe it is. Think again of Bing Bong in Inside Out. That movie offered its young audience a metaphorical means of processing their often-confusing emotions – at least potentially. I have no idea what IF is after, beyond the cheap catharsis of false melodrama, dangling a second possible parental death in front of a character the movie is too timid to characterize as in pain. It’s easy to imagine a child a little younger than Bea watching this movie and coming away confused not just about why they’ve heartlessly forgotten their own imaginary companion, but also the fundamentals of how hospitals, sick parents and well-meaning substitute caregivers actually work. (And back to that craft level for a moment: How does the director of A Quiet Place soft-pedal the sudden appearance of a creepy neighbor so gently, so spinelessly?)

There’s one sequence that briefly generates the magical charm Krasinski and Reynolds seem to be rooting around their cluttered attic for: Touring the IF retirement home, Bea uses the power of imagination to repeatedly transform the facility in a series of twisty, acrobatic camera and visual-effects tricks. The building flips its design scheme, characters climb in and out of paintings, and the whole thing turns into a Tina Turner musical number retrieved from the recesses of Bea’s memory. For a few minutes, the movie truly does reconnect with both the creativity and imprinted nostalgia entwined in our brains. Not long after, it’s back to shuffling through paperwork, mindlessly insisting that adults might weep with gratitude if only someone could visualize their childhood creations in front of them. Someone like… a movie director, perhaps? The movie’s ages-and-stages confusion makes perfect sense in the end: What’s supposed to be an all-ages celebration of childhood is actually pretty baby-brained.

Director: John Krasinski
Writers: John Krasinski
Starring: Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, Steve Carell, John Krasinski, Fiona Shaw, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Release Date: May 17, 2024

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, The A.V. Club, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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