The Imaginary review – charming anime about made-up best friends from former Ghibli protege

Estimated read time 2 min read

Studio Ponoc – the Japanese animation studio founded by Studio Ghibli alumni, which gave us Mary and the Witch’s Flower – returns with a playful and heartwarming family film that pays tribute to children’s creativity. Adapted from AF Harrold’s 2014 children’s novel of the same name, The Imaginary tells the story of a three-year-old boy called Rudger, who regularly gets into wild adventures with giants and yetis and other fantastical creatures. And yet he can’t be seen by most people; he’s the imaginary friend of Amanda, a young girl who is seeking solace after the death of her father.

Directed by Spirited Away animator Yoshiyuki Momose, The Imaginary is brought to life by rich hand-drawn and painted illustrations; both the real-world British town Amanda lives in and the fantastical worlds she dreams up are shown in dreamy, granular detail. There are times when scenes are so beautifully textured that they look like watercolour paintings. For Rudger and Amanda, danger arrives in the form of Mr Bunting, a mysterious man in a red tropical button-up who hunts down imaginary friends. A Hawaiian shirt has never looked so sinister.

The story seeks to appeal to child and inner-child alike: there’s a subplot about Amanda’s mother, Lizzie (voiced in the English-language version by Hayley Atwell) and her own childhood. There are scary moments, particularly in the form of a Bunting accomplice whose appearance brings to mind the shadowy villain of horror film The Ring. It’s not perfect: when Rudger discovers a secret world full of other “imaginaries” like him, full of gleeful dancing animals, the tone of the film becomes uneven, shifting from heartfelt family fable to twee weekend-TV cartoon.

And yet behind all these fantastical visions is a human story about grief, loss and the things we leave behind when we grow up. Amanda and her mother are coping with the death of her father, and the film considers the power of the human imagination when the world becomes difficult to bear. The Imaginary may not be a standout in the rich and wide-ranging oeuvre of its makers, but it is a moving and charming testament to the delights of dreaming.


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