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The Imaginary Review: Heartbreaking Anime Film

Three animated characters lean on a balcony with books behind them in the Netflix film The Imaginary

The Imaginary may wear its influences on its sleeve, but its gut-wrenching emotional moments and gorgeous animation more than make up for it.

Director: Yoshiyuki Momose
Genre: Animated
Run Time: 108′
Annecy Premiere: June 14, 2024
Release Date: July 5, 2024
Where to Watch: Netflix

Life is full of strange, peculiar and somewhat hilarious coincidences. Take the sudden influx of films centred around “imaginary friends”. Why are we getting so many at once? Have a bunch of studio executives suddenly decided that imaginary friends are the new “in” thing and the secret, foolproof way to make a trillion dollars at the box office? Well, as funny as that would be, it’s probably not the case.

The somewhat boring truth is that it’s probably just a bit of a coincidence that we seem to have gotten a handful of imaginary friend-related releases recently, with the subject of this review, Studio Ponoc’s latest fantasy animated film The Imaginary, being one such example. 

So, I guess the immediate question is how exactly does The Imaginary compare to its peers in the world of “imaginary friend cinema”, namely John Krasiniki’s IF and the Blumhouse horror Imaginary? Well, I actually think it completely eclipses its competition, being the only film out of the weirdest trilogy ever conceived to actually feel like it gets to the bottom of these weird figments and why children choose to believe in them in the first place. Now, it might be fair to say that Blumhouse’s Imaginary was less concerned with exploring those complex themes and more interested in shoving in enough scares to fill a trailer, but the other film I listed, IF, actually has a lot more in common with The Imaginary than you’d expect at first glance. 

For one, both films feature similar “hub” worlds where the imaginary friends go to live their days after they’ve been forgotten by their humans. Whilst IF’s version of what seems to be purgatory for imaginary friends feels similar to a rehab centre, the world seen in The Imaginary evokes the works of Studio Ghibli, with there being plenty of gorgeous backdrops and vibrant, warm colours to create this lovely sense of comfort. This isn’t the only way that The Imaginary feels similar to Studio Ghibli, but that’s to be expected given that the director, Yoshiyuki Momose, has collaborated with Hayao Miyazaki in the past, and Studio Ponoc was founded by a former Ghibli producer. 

Two animated children play inside a box in the Netflix film The Imaginary
The Imaginary (Netflix / 2024 Annecy Film Festival)

Just like most Ghibli films, The Imaginary stars a child protagonist, in this case Rudger (Kokoro Terada), the imaginary friend of a young girl named Amanda (Rio Suzuki). When Rudger finds himself separated from Amanda, he has to team up with a handful of other, significantly more bizarre imaginary friends to try and successfully reunite with her. As he tries to do this, though, he’s hunted by the nefarious Mr. Bunting (Issey Ogata), a hunter who specialises in eating imaginary friends. In many ways, he feels like if Studio Ghibli were to put the Bowler Hat Guy from Meet The Robinsons (2007) in one of their films, which is obviously an easy recipe for success.

It’s a plot with a lot going on, wanting us to introduce to this expansive world of the imaginary and explain all of its pretty complicated rules and traditions, whilst also staying simple enough to never lose its hypnotising pacing. Not everything it attempted worked for me. Take one system the film introduces, that’s similar in concept to a part in IF where pre-existing imaginary friends can try and connect with a new kid, except here they’re essentially reset to completely fit the needs and desires of whichever kid they choose to help. It’s an incredibly interesting idea, but one that the film unfortunately never gets to explore in too much depth, leaving it feeling a tad underdeveloped. The Imaginary also makes the mistake of introducing so many inventive imaginary friends with ridiculous, brilliant designs but then chooses to spend the majority of its time focusing on characters who look like the same humans we see in every other animated film. 

Having “too many good designs in the film” and “the less important concepts are too interesting” as your main flaws obviously does mean that the film is doing so much right, but easily what it gets the most right is its emotional beats. Not every single one lands, but there’s a few that managed to get a genuine, heartfelt reaction out of my cold, dark soul. The combination of the gorgeous score, beautiful animation and sincere writing results in a story that feels like it’s embracing that idea of finding comfort in your own imagination without telling its audience that growing up is bad. The Imaginary is a surprisingly mature film, and easily puts any of its “imaginary friend-related” colleagues to shame. 

In many ways, The Imaginary is like if Miyazaki was to have made IF. It’s a very fitting title, as the amount of imaginative ideas on display at any given second is somewhat astounding. Whilst there are certainly moments that can’t help but feel like a pale imitation of some of Ghibli’s finest works, there’s enough original and exciting stuff here for me to still whole-heartedly recommend The Imaginary for anyone who fancies a good cry. It recalls the best parts of playing with your childhood imaginary friend, whilst also managing to pack its narrative full of thoughtful lessons and mature insights. Pay attention studio executives, The Imaginary is how you do a film with this subject matter that you seem to love so much. Take notes.

The Imaginary premiered at the Annecy Film Festival on June 14, 2024 and will be available to stream on Netflix from July 5, 2024. Read our Annecy reviews of Diplodocus and Spermageddon.

The Imaginary: Trailer (Netflix)
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