Sunday, July 14, 2024

“THE IMAGINARY”

THE STORY – Rudger, a made-up friend, gets separated from his best friend Amanda and must team up with lost Imaginaries to get back to her before he fades away.

THE CAST – Kokoro Terada, Rio Suzuki, Sakura Ando, Riisa Naka, Takayuki, Yamada, Atsuko Takahata & Issey Ogata

THE TEAM – Yoshiyuki Momose (Director) & Yoshiaki Nishimura (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes


Now and then, movies with similar themes are released, one on top of another. Whether it’s two films about volcanoes, deadly meteors, or Truman Capote, it happens. But if you had told me that the subject of imaginary friends would be the hottest topic among spring movies (and we would get three of them in nearly as many months), I might have looked at you askance. But in the first half of 2024, we’ve already had an imaginary friend as a weapon of death (“Imaginary“) and a bunch of imaginary friends crammed in a Brooklyn Heights apartment (“IF“). Now we have the third — and to my mind, the best — of the bunch in Yoshiyuki Momose’s gorgeous anime fantasy, “The Imaginary,” which takes the imaginary friend’s idea and turns it on its head by changing the perspective of the story. And that change makes all the difference.

Based on the novel by A.F. Harrold, “The Imaginary” is the second feature release from Studio Ponoc, an animation house founded in 2015 by Yoshiaki Nishimura, the former lead producer of Studio Ghibli and is staffed by many Ghibli alums, including Momose, who was a key animator on several Ghibli classics, including Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” Momose’s style here is similar to that of those Ghibli films, creating stories using movement and bold color juxtaposed with often dark or adult themes to better engage both the eye and the mind.

“The Imaginary” is set up as any imaginary friend film might be by focusing on Amanda (voiced by Rio Suzuki), a young girl grieving the loss of her father by creating her new special friend, a boy named Rudger (Kokoro Terada). Trauma from the death of a parent is a consistent trigger in these imaginary friend films. Whenever Amanda gets blue, she has Rudger to join her to whatever faraway place her imagination can take her, from flying past majestic mountains to the beauty of the Northern Lights. Rudger dearly loves his friend, treasuring Amanda, particularly for the vastness of her imagination.

However, when it comes time for Amanda to leave for school, “The Imaginary” shifts its narrative perspective and stays with Rudger instead. Rudger, though imaginary, shares some of the deepest fears of many children and worries that, without Amanda present, she will forget about him and cause him to disappear. At the same time, he finds that he is being stalked by Mr. Bunting (Issey Ogata), an imposing human who has designs on eating him whole so that he can ingest Rudger’s powers as an imaginary. It’s little wonder Rudger is visibly relieved when Amanda comes home from school, and they can play again.

One day, however, an incident impairs Amanda’s memory function, and Rudger finds himself slowly disappearing. He is saved by Zinzan, a wise old cat who leads Rudger to a large library populated by other imaginaries who have been forgotten by their kids. They thrive in the library, where they can breathe in imagination, which keeps them alive the same way humans need oxygen. Though he is warmly welcomed by the other imaginaries, who seek to be placed with new kids, Rudger has no interest in another child. Even as he is risking permanent disappearance by leaving the library, Rudger sets out to do anything he can to get back home to Amanda.

Part of the reason why “The Imaginary” works as well as it does is that director Momose and screenwriter Nishimura understand that if you’re going to take on world-building in your film, the rules and consequences of your world have to make apparent a necessity that recently tripped up “IF,” for example. By making Rudger the protagonist, we are constantly reminded of the stakes involved with his quest, of what he can and can’t do, and how easily he can disappear — all consequences that allow us to become invested in his success even more.

The film’s voice work is solid across the board, with Tereda’s expressive performance as Rudger carrying the film through (This is a review of the original Japanese version, but an English-dubbed version will also be available, featuring such familiar names as Hayley Atwell, Kal Penn, Jeremy Swift, and LeVar Burton). Techs are solid, with particular praise for the film’s hand-drawn animation, the Kenji Tamai & Agehasprings orchestral score, and the fluid editing by Toshihiko Kojima that sets a pace that rarely lags.

If there are a few moments when “The Imaginary” feels like Studio Ghibli-lite, it’s understandable, given Ponoc’s growing pains as a studio. It’s much more telling, however, that the film has followed Ghibli’s approach in keeping its characters complex and its visual style expressive, never forgetting to respect the intelligence of its audience. Indeed, if Ponoc is seen less as a rival to Ghibli and more as a sister studio, thanks to their shared approach to animation, then “The Imaginary” will undoubtedly be seen as getting Ponoc off to an extremely promising start.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The third (and best) in a recent string of films centering on imaginary friends, the film upends the usual protagonist for such films and focuses on the friends themselves, building a world where the rules and consequences for your hero are made perfectly clear.

THE BAD - There are moments when the film feels like Studio Ghibli-lite, missing the depth of feeling of some of Ghibli's finest films.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Animated Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

Tom O'Brien
Tom O'Brienhttps://nextbestpicture.com
Palm Springs Blogger and Awards lover. Editor at Exact Change & contributing writer for Gold Derby.

Related Articles

Stay Connected

101,150FollowersFollow
101,150FollowersFollow
9,315FansLike
9,315FansLike
4,686FollowersFollow
4,686FollowersFollow

Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>The third (and best) in a recent string of films centering on imaginary friends, the film upends the usual protagonist for such films and focuses on the friends themselves, building a world where the rules and consequences for your hero are made perfectly clear.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>There are moments when the film feels like Studio Ghibli-lite, missing the depth of feeling of some of Ghibli's finest films.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-animated-feature/">Best Animated Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE IMAGINARY"