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Imaginary (2024)Review: A Journey into Childhood Terror Falls Short

A little girl sleeps with a teddy bear underneath pink blankets
Pyper Braun as Alice in IMAGINARY | Photo Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate

By Sarah Musnicky

Unseen entities befriending and manipulating children are a tried-and-true pairing within the horror genre. With this pairing comes a certain expectation of tropes, but there is always room for exploration and experimentation. Today, experimentation is more often rewarded than lauded regarding the familiar. This is part of why IMAGINARY (2024) proves more disappointing than not. Lacking the imagination its premise should thrive on, the latest from writer/director Jeff Wadlow does little to step outside the safe confines of the metaphorical sandbox.

Starring DeWanda Wise, Tom Payne, Taegen Burns, Pyper Braun, Veronica Falcon, and Betty Buckley, IMAGINARY (2024) starts with a horrifying opener that highlights the horrific potential buried deep within the heart of the film. This nightmare reveals Jessica's (DeWanda Wise) anxieties about returning to her childhood home with her new family. There's unresolved trauma there, but with little memory of what happened, there's not much she can do but move forward.

Moving forward is also at the forefront of her stepdaughter Alice's (Pyper Braun) mind. Lonely and riddled with burn scars, this imaginative young girl wants a friend. Conveniently, mysterious voices lure her to the home's basement, where she meets her new imaginary friend, Chauncey. At first, things start innocently enough. But Chauncey's hold on the girl takes a progressively sinister turn, with one scene highlighting a taste of what this imaginary friend can wreak if left off its leash.

On paper, IMAGINARY (2024) has potential. The plot is familiar enough for casual and hardcore horror fans alike to at least think you know what you're getting into. This is where you'd be wrong. Wadlow and screenwriters Greg Erb and Jason Oremland throw everything but the kitchen sink into the script. From a brief glimpse of a mentally ill mother to an it's-all-in-her-mind subplot to a barely touched upon exploration of the Never Ever, the plot features so many different distractions that you'd think Alice herself concocted the tale. Childlike distractability and all.

A girl sits next to a teddy bear and behind them there is a dark, shadowy creature.
Pyper Braun as Alice in IMAGINARY | Photo Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate

These multiple story points remove any definitive identity to IMAGINARY (2024), even with its memorable Chauncey plush. It is as if the writers threw darts at a board, hoping one thing would stick before moving to the next. It's a shame because there are elements of the screenplay that showed potential for further explanation. Chauncey's possessiveness over Alice manifests itself in one of the film's most memorable game of cat-and-mouse. There's also the Never Ever, which offered the film's most exciting forays into the unknown far too late in the story.

For what it is worth, the cast tries their best with the material provided. DeWanda Wise is sympathetic as the stepmother trying to reconcile with her fuzzy past and parent her increasingly troublesome stepdaughters. Pyper Braun checks the box of creepy little girl well here, giving the willies as Chauncey's hold over her Alice grows tighter. The material and direction falter a bit further with Betty Buckley's friendly neighbor, who has the devil's task of delivering the bulk of the film's expositional bits. More theatrical in delivery than likely required, Buckley renders more awkward laughs than not with her performance.

What lifts IMAGINARY (2024) is its embrace of the practical, particularly in the Never Ever. The puppeteering of Chauncey does so much with so little. A simple turn of the head, a change of facial expression, or even when Chauncey levels up in a giant rawr-worthy suit (still worthy of boops) immerses the audience in the world.

The same can be said for the Never Ever. While the design is reminiscent of films like Insidious and Jim Henson's Labyrinth, a whimsy hints at the children likely trapped within. The clouds on the ceiling flash with lightning, the multiple different doors, a randomly appearing puppy from nowhere; it all comes together to flesh out this strange world Chauncey calls home. Unfortunately, neither the audience nor the characters spend enough time there to learn Never Ever's secrets.

It is hard to say whether Wadlow and Co were afraid to lean into the more campy elements of Chauncey's murderous being. The potential was there to go further, with little pockets of horror to give us a taste of what could have been. Unfortunately, by doing too much and accomplishing too little all at once, IMAGINARY (2024) will make others want to imagine a whole other adventure once the credits roll.

IMAGINARY (2024) is in theaters on March 8, 2024.


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