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'THE IMAGINARY (2024) Review: A Hopeful Tale of Imagination and Reality'

Courtesy Netflix

By Sarah Musnicky

Imagination is the greatest tool in humanity's arsenal. It can comfort and destroy. Spread happiness or fear. Ultimately, imagination is there to help us work through whatever is on our minds. Through protagonists Rudger (Kokoro Terada/Louie Rudge-Buchanan) and Amanda (Rio Suzuki/Evie Kiszel), we see how imagination saves lives and maintains hope above all else in Studio Ponoc's latest film, THE IMAGINARY (Yaneura no Rajā).

THE IMAGINARY focuses on the young girl, Amanda, and her imaginary friend, Rudger. Born out of grief, Rudger is Amanda's companion and confidant, keeping her mind distracted from the whirlwind changes of her daily life. Her mother, Lizzie (Sakura Ando/Hayley Atwell), is too busy dealing with the aftermath of her husband's passing to be there for her daughter. Not wanting to add to her burdens, it's clear Rudger is there to keep her spirits lifted.

Everything changes with the arrival of the incredibly suspicious Mr. Bunting (Issey Ogata/Jeremy Swift). He randomly shows up at the family bookshop to try to find something. The something? Rudger. While the adult can see imaginaries like Rudger, nothing good comes from his presence. Mr. Bunting follows the duo to the countryside, with a confrontation that culminates in shocking changes for both. Ultimately, Rudger is then forced to learn to be on his own.

Much of THE IMAGINARY is spent fleshing out the world. Rudger acts as the audience surrogate, so we learn the rules of imagination and, particularly, the imaginaries through his experiences. Screenwriter Yoshiaki Nishimura's screenplay leans more into exposition than necessary, creating an uneven sense of pacing in the first and second acts. As soon as Mr. Bunting's threat manifests, it's cut short by Rudger's transition into "the town of Imaginaries."

The connective tissue between the first and second acts is that the threat of Mr. Bunting never dies down, and for good reason. He's the foreboding lesson of what happens when we can't let go. Imaginaries are the culmination of childhood innocence and must be protected. Mr. Bunting is what all Imaginaries fear. Through his selfishness and greed, childhood innocence can and will die.

Through Amanda's and Rudger's journey, director Yoshiyuki Momose and Nishimura illustrate how it is important to share what plagues us. Rudger is an amalgamation of what Amanda leaves unsaid. Both repeat the mantra Amanda's father left behind for her throughout THE IMAGINARY. But what this means in the end is that much is left unspoken between Amanda and Lizzie. The film reminds us that it is okay to cry. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to share these things with others. In THE IMAGINARY's climax, when imagination and reality collide, this lesson comes to fruition.

Momose's animation brings THE IMAGINARY to life. From spaceship battles to underwater ventures to twisty tornado-like storms, viewers are immediately immersed in a creative world that's just as versatile as expected. The hand-drawn animation allows for a bending of physics and proportions that match the qualities of what a child's mind might manifest. This stokes a wonder that invites both children and adults (except for Mr. Bunting...he's not allowed ever again) to lose themselves in what Studio Ponoc aims to deliver.

THE IMAGINARY features important lessons that both children and adults can take away. Through our imagination, it is okay to escape. But it cannot be used as a crutch, nor can we avoid confronting reality forever. Mr. Bunting is a glowing example of why. Through a flurry of beautifully constructed animated visuals and heartfelt, memorable voice acting, this film delivers its intended message with aplomb.

THE IMAGINARY will stream exclusively on Netflix July 5, 2024.


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