Maverick Life

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING

IF, Imaginary Friends review — whimsical beauty and artistry sadly lost in contemplation

IF, Imaginary Friends review — whimsical beauty and artistry sadly lost in contemplation
Ryan Reynolds and Cailey Fleming star in ‘IF’. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

It may look like a colourful and whimsical family romp, but John Krasinki’s ‘IF’ (also known as Imaginary Friends), starring Ryan Reynolds, is more concerned with nostalgia, contemplation and general good vibes than exploring its true potential.

Imaginary friends are such a great storytelling tool. While the concept of a creature that only one’s childhood self can see or hear is pretty simple, it is subject to a wide variety of interpretations and is malleable enough to be explored through any genre. Typically, the best projects are the ones that either try to reconcile imaginary friends’ emotional influence and impact (they are, after all, a very personal phenomenon), or maximise their creative potential.

With his latest film, IF — also released as Imaginary Friends — writer, director and actor John Krasinski tries to do both. Disappointingly, he falls short in each case.

IF centres on 12-year-old Bea (played by Cailey Fleming), a young girl who has cut herself off from feelings in the wake of her mother’s death, and as her father (Krasinski) undergoes treatment in hospital. While staying with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), Bea runs into and befriends the mysterious Cal (Ryan Reynolds), but not before she discovers that she, like Cal, can see and interact with imaginary friends whose child creators have grown up and abandoned them.

IF

Ryan Reynolds and Cailey Fleming star in ‘IF’. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

Teaming up with Cal, a giant purple monster named Blue and a dancing butterfly called Blossom, Bea sets out to find new kids for all the “IFs”, learn more about where they came from, and re-discover the power of imagination.

Despite the whimsical, childlike plot description, IF is quick to reveal it’s really oriented towards the adults in the audience, rather than the kids. The film’s drawcard is its introspection, it reminisces about the imaginary friends that people have manifested and who are now buried deep under a lifetime of memories. That contemplation is also what makes IF a very different beast compared to other films or shows that focus on imaginary friends — most notably the Cartoon Network series Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, where the friends are driven more by character than nostalgia.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, IF

Phoebe Waller-Bridge voices Blossom in ‘IF’. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

One would think IF would take that character-driven route, especially given the strength of its ensemble cast. Along with Steve Carrell and Phoebe Waller-Bridge who give life to Blue and Blossom respectively, the list of IF voices includes Louis Gossett Jr, Emily Blunt, Bradley Cooper, Keegan-Michael Key, Jon Stewart, Sam Rockwell, Awkwafina and Christopher Meloni.

Steve Carell, IF

Steve Carell stars as Blue in ‘IF’. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

While ensembles like this rarely result in all players getting their due attention, and Blue and Blossom are deserving of the lion’s share, IF refuses to give its characters their close-ups. There are long scenes of the cast just basking in sunbeams or visualising a world of pure imagination, all to a Michael Giacchino musical score of piano melodies. As a result, the film moves at a glacial pace, making that 104-minute runtime feel much longer than it should.

The film also struggles to ignite its emotional core. Fleming is doing her best with the material, playing a child who has retreated inward in the wake of tragedy, but her motivation doesn’t line up with the message of the story. By no means are the two incompatible, but the disconnect is thrown into focus by heavy-handed gestures at emotion. Reynolds brings up the rear effectively, delivering a performance that’s more subdued than usual, but the character of Cal comes off as a plot device and blends too much into the background.

IF

Though a creative treat for the eyes, IF’s emotional promise is left unfulfilled due to a misdirected narrative and thematic approach that robs the film of its magic. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

Even though it has innate problems, IF is still watchable and, indeed, at times enjoyable. The centrepiece is, naturally, the IFs themselves, rendered stunningly into the world and complete with unique designs and personalities. Gossett Jr as an elderly teddy bear is a particular standout, while Meloni as gumshoe Cosmo provides frenetic energy that elevates him above the rest of the group. Thanks to the meticulous visual effects that root the IFs in our reality, there’s little disbelief that they actually are in the same room as the human characters.

Matt Damon, IF

Matt Damon stars as Flower in ‘IF’. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

Meanwhile, Krasinski continues to prove himself as a technically talented director. Despite the issues with the script, he knows how to shoot in confined spaces and blend the real and the fantastical seamlessly. There is a particular sequence in which Cal’s surroundings are constantly changing as Bea’s imagination runs wild. It’s fun and lively and goes a long way to set the film’s tone and win over the audience. At least in that instant.

As much as IF is the best movie about imaginary friends one will see this year (and not that terrible horror outing Imaginary from a few months ago), it is pulled down by the weighted feeling of untapped potential. The amount of goodwill and sentiment it generates isn’t enough to seal the cracks in its foundation. Even though it tries valiantly to get the audience to believe in it. DM

‘IF’. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

IF is in cinemas now, having released on 17 May.

This article was first published on PFangirl

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.