Adapted by director Yoshiyuki Momose (a former animator at Studio Ghibli) and screenwriter Yoshiaki Nishimura (a former producer at Studio Ghibli) from a popular British children’s novel of the last decade, the Studio Ponoc production The Imaginary undermines much of its breathless talk of imagination by transparently and schematically tracing the footsteps of children’s entertainment titans. Its opening act introduces us to a pastel-colored, Ghibliesque English city where a lonely yet free-spirited little girl named Anna (voiced by Rio Suzuki in Japanese, Evie Kiszel in English) lives with her hardworking single mother in an adorably quaint family-run bookshop. She is quite imaginative: we know this because we see literal magic emanate out of her CD player when she puts on her favorite song, before flashily animated fantasy sequences literally morph her real-world surroundings into colorful (if generic) fantasy settings. First off: a Christmas land with reindeer, sleds, and yetis in the attic.

The story is not framed from Amanda’s point of view, however; in fact she spends much of it offscreen. The main character is Rudger (Kokoro Terada in Japanese, Louie Rudge-Buchanan in English), who has the appearance of a blond-haired little boy but is actually Anna’s imaginary friend, who is literally, imaginarily real. Rudger wants nothing more than to play with Amanda, but when a traumatic incident separates him from his child, he discovers a parallel world of imaginary friends––some more humanoid than others––who can all see and communicate with one another. In the unnerving style of Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. and Inside Out, the collective unconscious is actually a rigidly governed postindustrial workforce where “imaginaries” report to supervisors and take job assignments from an app-like UI that loans out their mercenary labor as toddlers’ playmates. Rudger wants to be reunited with Amanda, but for reasons that don’t entirely make sense (as much as any of this could) he is constrained by the rules and procedures of the Imaginary business model as he undertakes his quest. 

In fact, an exorbitant––some might say inexplicable––amount of time in The Imaginary’s midsection is dedicated to laying out the lawyerly rules and regulations of imaginary friendhood; mostly this takes place through wordy exposition dumps delivered while bright colors flash across the screen and Teletubby-like figures dance and play in a variety of whimsical but unmemorable backdrops (a samurai castle, a non-specific spaceship fantasy, etc.). Imaginaries must stay within a certain radius of their assigned child, or their imagination mojo runs out and they begin fading into golden sparkles of light. Children create imaginaries; when a child forgets the imaginary, the imaginary returns to the imaginary hub to be reassigned (sometimes, but sometimes not, guided by a heterochromic cat voiced by a Neo-from-The Matrix-sounding Kal Penn). Sometimes an imaginary can shapeshift into a different imaginary. When an imaginary dies in a fantasy (“an imagination”), however, they die in imaginary real life. We are, in fact, expected to feel anger and pathos when adult characters explain to children that imaginary friends aren’t real, because we know from experiencing their subjectivity that they are. Even though the film explains they’re imaginary. The script lays down reams upon reams of plotting and yet, needless to say, the stakes are not always clear.

The great fiction dealing in children’s imaginations tends to either abstract and contextualize their fantasies through folkloric, mythological metaphors––as in several Hayao Miyazaki films, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro especially––or present a tastefully ambiguous and fluid reality to match the less-firm boundaries of a child’s mind—as in Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes perpetually teasing readers with a Schrodinger’s cat paradox of the sardonic stuffed tiger’s reality or unreality within six-year-old Calvin’s world. Pixar’s literal-minded anthropomorphism of things humans relate to––toys, animals, vehicles, figments of the imagination––at least defamiliarizes the audience’s world and, at its best, pokes gentle fun at the utilitarian, anthropocentric worldview of industrial capitalism. The Imaginary seems to be going for all these angles at once, veering into confounding gracelessness while doing so. Rather than embrace the freeform emotional logic of a child’s imagination or contextualize it in any coherent worldview, Momose and Nishimura seek to industrialize the unconscious and batter the audience, Inception-style, with convoluted plotting and nonsensical, made-up rules for a made-up world of characters who are literally, within the context of the story itself, made-up. Why? The age demographic most interested in seeing a pink hippopotamus pilot a toy spaceship are not going to follow any of this gobbledygook, nor find profound revelations in being told point-blank how precious their imaginations are. (They know this already; they are living it.) 

They also, quite likely, will not take kindly to some of the imagery and subject matter dealt with when The Imaginary is not forefronting pink hippos: dead parents, children hit by cars and lethally shot, and the pedophile-coded villain “Mr. Bunting” (Issey Ogata/Jeremy Swift). Mr. Bunting is the link between the imaginary and human worlds, a rotund, balding, mustachioed middle-aged man in business-casual attire who follows children to their homes and insinuates himself with their parents so as to literally sniff out and eat their imaginary friends with his oversized nose and mouth. Mr. Bunting has an imaginary friend of his own, one with superpowers to locate and ensnare other imaginaries who, in a symbolically baffling reference that kids will surely appreciate, is an exact duplicate of Sadako from The Ring. The film’s most visually inventive sequences, actually, come in Mr. Bunting’s grotesque, demonic transformations and those he imposes on his surroundings, turning solid textures like wallpaper or skin into fluid quagmires and revealing an otherworldly vortex inside his gaping sharklike maw. These are the bits that really show Momose’s pedigree animating Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, both films whose darker creations blend easily into their arch mythopoeic settings. Here, however, they feel markedly out of place when the bulk of The Imaginary (the pink hippopotamus parts) is liable to be written off by anyone with an age nearing double digits as “for babies.”

This is the larger issue with The Imaginary: it’s extremely eager to make its creators’ pedigree and inspirations visible, but the comparisons rarely flatter it. Momose’s soft, rounded, quasi-realistic character designs clearly invoke Ghibli, while his bright colors combined with innovative shading techniques create a dollhouse-like three-dimensionality that he can rightfully call a style of his own. But the difference in direction is stark. The clean, airbrushed images have nothing like the painterly depth and contrast of the Miyazaki and Isao Takahata films Momose helped bring to life. The ordinary movements of human characters have none of the carefully studied idiosyncrasies or fragile fluidity; they’re largely formal and statuesque. Where his mentors, inspired more by adult dramas than Disney, mapped out shots and scenes with sometimes-demanding patience to make their films’ worlds breathe and draw the audience inside, Momose cuts perfunctorily to highlight the essential plot-advancing action of each scene, and no more––as Hollywood convention demands. The frolicking denizens of the imaginaries’ world––little skeletons and anthropomorphic eggs and sunflowers and so on––have nothing close to the gothic, mythologically inspired creativity of Spirited Away’s supernatural creations; when the characters enter a child’s textureless, vaguely Buck Rogers-esque sci-fi fantasy, it’s doesn’t hold a candle to the angular, baroque alien worlds visited by Spaceman Spiff. The film’s aggressive, preachy sentimentality and evocation of childish whimsy embrace a caricatured saccharinity that even Ghibli’s most crowd-pleasing hits narrowly steer clear of, yet its onslaught of arbitrary stakes and schematic story arcs seem to plow thoughtlessly over whimsy and leave it broken in the middle of the road. The end credits belt out an excruciating slow duet with the chorus, “There’s a place… where nothing’s impossible!” (This English-language atrocity is on Netflix, clearly hoping for a family hit, while Studio Ghibli’s output remains tantalizingly stuck on Max.)

The film isn’t slight on effort, and the Studio Ponoc crew isn’t lacking talent (better realized in their short-film anthology Modest Heroes). But The Imaginary seems crucially lacking in the very quality it so breathlessly extols: it’s technical competency without imaginative vision, nor deep understanding of children.

The Imaginary is now in theaters and arrives on Netflix on July 5.

Grade: C

No more articles