Studio Ponoc Outdoes John Krasinski in the Sweet Anime The Imaginary

Movies Reviews Studio Ponoc
Studio Ponoc Outdoes John Krasinski in the Sweet Anime The Imaginary

Amidst all of its lush 2-D animation and fantastical dreamworld imagery, The Imaginary can also take pride in having absolutely scooped budding auteur John Krasinski. In the U.S., it may look like the opposite; Krasinski’s family fantasy IF opened back in May, while The Imaginary is taking its very similar premise to Netflix (following a limited theatrical run) a month-and-a-half later. But the latter was released in Japan in 2023, and moreover, The Imaginary runs further and faster with its family-friendly concept.

The third release from Studio Ponoc, a Japanese animation studio formed by former Studio Ghibli staffers, The Imaginary is a little twinklier and more straightforward than its Ghibli cousins, with some dreamscapes that look suspiciously Lisa Frank-y. But it has more legitimate imagination than the sweaty whimsy of IF. The Imaginary follows the recently forged but tight friendship between Amanda (voiced in the English dub by Evie Kiszel) and Rudger (Louie Rudge-Buchanan), a little boy who happens to be visible only to Amanda, his creator. Amanda, like many of the characters in IF, seems a little old for imaginary friends, but The Imaginary makes Rudger both more tactile and more ephemeral, a product of both imaginary play and personal coping mechanism. Understanding the struggles of her recently widowed mother Lizzie (Hayley Atwell), Amanda tries her best to stay strong in a difficult situation, and makes up Rudger as a playmate who will share her particular vows, including a promise to never cry.

Like the creatures in IF, Rudger turns out to have a life of his own, though he does maintain a delicate tether to the material world; once a child starts to forget their imaginary friend, the friend will start to disintegrate into a kind of stardust, though the process is not always immediate. The invisible, imaginary, but not-yet-disappeared population gathers at a local library, where they can sign up to serve as temporary playmates for various lonely children. (What qualifies them for this service, rather than returning to the ether, feels a little muddled.) Rudger doesn’t seem to be in danger of disappearing – Amanda treasures him – until his real-world girl suffers an accident and loses consciousness. The disappearing process could be further accelerated if Rudger is caught by Mr. Bunting (Jeremy Swift), who can appear in the human world (Rudger remains steadfastly invisible to Lizzie and others) and seeks to consume imaginaries, with the help of his Emily the Strange-ish assistant.

There are times when all of this quasi-mythological business verges on whimsical-lore overload, and director Yoshiyuki Momose has a counterintuitive solution: Making Rudger, rather than Amanda, the story’s focal point. This should make the story feel as wispy and insubstantial as Rudger himself, but his attempt to make sense of various imagination-based rules mirrors a child’s dawning awareness of the world around them. It gives the movie’s sometimes-nonsensical mythology and its occasionally overfamiliar images a conviction so often missing from more Hollywoodized expressions of childlike wonder. Even better, Mr. Bunting is one of those kid-movie menaces that draws on a primal, inexplicable creepiness; he really is like something out of a half-remembered nightmare, inspired by some half-forgotten image.

The Imaginary sometimes gets a little maudlin, and as such, it seems like it could appeal to both an older and a narrower demographic than the more expansive strangeness of the standard-setting Ghibli movies some of its creators have worked on. There’s less mystery here, and some of its irresolution feels less intentional, less delicately wrought than the best family-centric Japanese animation. But in a season where big-ticket American family entertainment offers a three-item menu of branded slapstick (The Garfield Movie), an earnest TED Talk (Inside Out 2) or a calculated paean to generic wonder (IF), The Imaginary is a welcome alternative.

Director: Yoshiyuki Momose
Writer: Yoshiaki Nishimura
Starring:: Louie Rudge-Buchanan, Evie Kiszel, Hayley Atwell, Kal Penn, Sky Katz, Jeremy Swift
Release Date: June 28, 2024 (limited); July 5, 2024 (Netflix)

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, 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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