The Imaginary review: Anime imagines a bright future beyond Ghibli

The new animated film from the creators of some of your favorite Studio Ghibli films is a warm-hearted celebration of the creative spirit

The Imaginary review: Anime imagines a bright future beyond Ghibli
The Imaginary Image: Netflix

Let’s address the big Totoro in the room right up front, shall we? The Imaginary, a new animated feature heading soon to Netflix, is not a Studio Ghibli film, though it looks and sounds an awful lot like one. There’s a good reason for that: The Imaginary comes from Studio Ponoc, the animation house founded by ex-Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (Howl’s Moving Castle, The Tale Of Princess Kaguya, When Marnie Was There). The name “Ponoc” was inspired by the Croatian word for “midnight,” as in the start of a brand new day. Since opening in 2015, Studio Ponoc has released a handful of shorts and an anthology, but The Imaginary is only the studio’s second feature-length film, after the excellent Mary And The Witch’s Flower. A very promising start, indeed.

Directed by Yoshiuki Momose, a former animator and storyboard artist who worked on many Studio Ghibli projects, including Whisper Of The Heart, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away. The Imaginary is infused with a delightful sense of wonder, as you might expect from someone with those titles on their resume. The story was adapted from a 2014 children’s novel of the same name by British author A.F. Harrold. At its heart is the relationship between a young girl named Amanda Shuffleup (voiced in the English dub by Evie Kiszel) and her imaginary friend Rudger (Louie Rudge-Buchanan). In her fantastically decorated attic room Amanda conjures exciting adventures for them both, like sledding down a snowy hill in a cardboard box, swimming through a colorful ocean, or soaring through the sky on a giant bird. Amanda’s mother Lizzie (Haley Atwell) can’t see or hear Rudger, but mostly tolerates her daughter’s flights of fancy.

In this world, Rudger is just one of many Imaginaries, make-believe companions created by children to serve an emotional need. Once the children don’t need them anymore, they’re usually forgotten and eventually fade away. When Amanda is seriously injured in an accident, Rudger finds himself untethered and worries that he may become one of the disappeared. To make matters worse, he’s also being pursued by a mysterious man named Mr. Bunting (Jeremy Swift), who consumes Imaginaries and is always accompanied by a frightening little girl with long black hair (if you’re picturing Sadako from The Ring, you’re not too far off).

Fortunately, Rudger is saved by Zinzan (Kal Penn), a mysterious cat with red and blue eyes. Zinzan shows him the way to a library that’s become a refuge for forgotten Imaginaries. When the library closes, it transforms into an enchanted world inspired by the books on the shelves. The others are happy to welcome Rudger to their “Town of Imaginaries,” but he can’t let go of the promise he made to Amanda to “never disappear, protect each other, and never cry.” (Ironically, those words may draw a few tears from the audience in one of the film’s many emotional scenes.)

The Imaginary | Official Trailer | Netflix

Hayao Miyazaki believed the audience should understand everything they need to know about a character within the first 30 seconds they’re on screen. These animators have taken that lesson to heart. When Lizzie calls her mother, “Granny Downbeat,” she’s right at home in her beautiful little house and cottagecore kitchen decorated with drying flowers. This world looks lived in. Amanda’s attic bedroom is a cozy hideaway so lovingly drawn and detailed you feel like you could step right into it. Some of the backgrounds are clearly digitally rendered, but they blend organically with the two-dimensional animation in the foreground and everything has a heightened, slightly magical quality. It’s a charmingly nostalgic aesthetic that any fan of Japanese animation can comfortably sink into like a warm, sweetly scented bath.

The premise and themes of The Imaginary—love, loss, growing up, the consistency of change—are timeless, if not all that original. In an odd coincidence of timing, we’ve already had two films come out this year that not only bear similar titles, but also deal with the same concept: the horror film Imaginary (with no “The” in front of it) and the family comedy IF (which stands for “imaginary friends”). The development process for an animated film like this lasts for years, so the filmmakers couldn’t have predicted this trend, but it’s hard not to see it emerging out of a period of isolation when so many people could have used some bespoke companionship. The Imaginary is the best of the bunch, by far.

And it hardly matters if it feels a bit familiar, because the characters are so full of life and the story is constantly transporting you to so many new and interesting places. Amanda’s fantasy world is rich, with beautiful landscapes and quirky inhabitants like The Hard-Working Giant and the Chatty Squirrel, who flies around on an old-fashioned telephone dial. We also see worlds created by other children—a space adventure, a ballet recital—and a collection of other colorful Imaginaries who play in them. Their spirited leader, Emily (Sky Katz), takes the appearance of a human, like Rudger, and has a complete backstory and a full character arc of her own.

Despite an unnecessarily drawn-out climax, the film presents all these characters and moves through a lot of plot at a steady clip. A few moments of quiet introspection might have given it more room to breathe, as well as provided more of a showcase for the lyrical score composed by Kenji Tamai and his music collective agehasprings. As it is, though, The Imaginary is an enchanting tale in which reality clashes with imagination in a battle to determine which is more powerful. There are times when it seems like either side will win out, but there’s no doubt about which faction these filmmakers favor.

The Imaginary premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival on June 14. It arrives on Netflix on July 5.

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