Entertainment Reviews

To Be the Next Big Studio, Not the New “Studio Ghibli”: “The Imaginary” Review

We’ve seen a lot of media based on imaginary friends as of late, from the twisted thriller Imaginary (2024) from Blumhouse to the soft, family film IF (standing for imaginary friends) from Paramount, starring Ryan Reynolds and a star-studded cast of voices for the playful figments of young children’s minds. Today, we add a third movie on the themes of constructed companions with Studio Ponoc’s latest animated film, The Imaginary. You might remember Studio Ponoc’s last feature-length project, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, back in 2017, which is often confused for an entry in the acclaimed, twice-Academy Award-winning studio portfolio, Studio Ghibli. Can Studio Ponoc break away from its Hayao Miyazaki comparisons? Let’s find out.

The Imaginary focuses on a young boy named Rudger, an imaginary friend of Amanda, a young girl about the same age. These two have plenty of made-up adventures in the attic of Amanda’s mother’s bookshop and promise they will never forget each other. Rudger soon learns, that as soon as an imaginary friend is forgotten, they are lost forever and his friendship with Amanda is tested. At the same time, Rudger is mysteriously sought after by someone who can see him and may have an imaginary figure of their own. After a tragic event with Amanda, Rudger is swiftly rescued from his fate of being forgotten and taken to a refuge where all imaginary friends live after their human partners forget them. Rudger, still believing in the promise made in the attic time after time, does his best to find Amanda and show her the bond of their friendship and for her to remember him.

Through one’s imagination, a box in an attic can become a sledge in the middle of the Arctic.

Now, the concept of imaginary friends in a foster setting isn’t anything new, but this anime did catch my eye because of the studio behind it. To no one’s surprise, it didn’t disappoint. The characters were so much fun to watch and seeing Amanda’s thoughts and visions come to life demonstrated how much the power of imagination has on all of us when we’re young and grown up. The antagonist was threatening and even a bit too creepy for my liking with the way they covet imaginary friends and how Rudger’s appearance is that of a young boy. Rudger’s supporting friends in the rescue town are a delight with their own stories and dreams. It’s a magical scene to behold from start to finish.

I have my issues with the narrative in the sense that the dialogue came off as very dry, with more “telling” rather than using the images of the spectacular animation to make the points across. This could have been a fault of the dubbing and localization of the film, but I could not say for certain that is the case. I am also not familiar with the source material from author A.F. Harrold, but I may have to pick up the novel for a better insight into Amanda and Rudger from a literary perspective.

The determination that Rudger shows to get back to Amanda, even after a rocky argument, is a true demonstration of a strong bond of friendship.

That said, I didn’t have the choice of English or Japanese audio at the limited theatrical screening at my local cinema. However, when taking the British setting of the film into account, the English dub does fit well for the characters. It didn’t take away from the experience of the film aside from some dialogue issues here and there, but I may have to make a trip back to The Imaginary for a Japanese audio screening to see if there’s a difference or not.

With The Imaginary, and all the other imaginary-based media coming out, the theme does make you think about the impact of imagination on not just children, but adults too. As an adult, you might have fond memories of cherished childhood toys or an imaginary friend of your own. As we get older, we seek comfort and companionship from the friends that we surround ourselves with. It doesn’t matter if they’re plush animals, dolls, figurines, or even completely abstract characters that only exist in fantasy and fiction because they are examples of our imagination at work and that helps us process this wild and crazy world that we do our best to live in. One of the reasons I love going to the cinema is to get lost in a brand new world so who’s to say you can’t live in a world with a group of constructed friends if that makes a place you can call your own?

Just because you can’t see someone, doesn’t mean that what you have with them isn’t real. And true friends are never forgotten.

Overall, I’d say a strong sophomore entry into the catalogue of anime films from Studio Ponoc. It’s clear that they don’t want to stay forever in Ghibli’s shadow and I’d argue that Ghibli is past their prime, even if The Boy and the Heron won an Oscar this year. The magic Ponoc has presented in feature-length showtime makes me hopeful for what narrative they have in store next.

I give The Imaginary a score of four tickets out of five. A movie that will tug at your heartstrings, and be nothing but magical along the way.

The Imaginary is now streaming on Netflix in most major regions.

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