‘The Imaginary’ Review: What’s a Pretend Friend to Do When His Human Creator Outgrows Him?

A decade ago, legendary director Hayao Miyazaki retired, sending Studio Ghibli’s team of animators to seek employment elsewhere. Those were dark, uncertain times for the industry, which explains why veteran Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura picked the word “ponoć” (which means “midnight” in Croatian) for his new studio: He wanted to convey a new dawn for some of the medium’s most talented artists.

No question, the spirit survived in Studio Ponoc’s first feature, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” as well as a series of shorts bundled under the title “Modest Heroes.” Anime fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. The magic they’d associated with Studio Ghibli would live on. And then Miyazaki changed his mind and made “The Boy and the Heron” (reports of his retirement were, to paraphrase Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated). In an unexpected twist, the artists who’d come up working alongside Miyazaki now found themselves competing with him.

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Studio Ponoc’s second feature, “The Imaginary,” clearly hails from the same collective imagination that gave us “Mary,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “When Marnie Was There” (the common thread is producer — and Studio Ponoc founder — Yoshiaki Nishimura). It’s a funny thing, but these Japanese filmmakers have repeatedly turned to British fantasy novels for inspiration. That’s also true of A.F. Harrold’s children’s novel “The Imaginary,” which Nishimura adapted himself for 70-year-old director Yoshiyuki Momose, a Ghibli veteran who’d overseen the studio’s live-action division toward the tail end of his tenure there.

This all probably sounds like inside baseball to amateur anime buffs who stumble across “The Imaginary” on Netflix. Suffice it to say, the film is about as close to Ghibli as you can get without asking Miyazaki to direct another movie. That’s both a comfort and a limitation. Harrold’s book is illustrated by Emily Gravett in a style closer to “Where the Wild Things Are” creator Maurice Sendak than the wide-eyed, Ghibli-esque cartoon characters that have started to feel almost generic. Frankly, it would have been interesting to see Momose break from the house style and give the movie’s humans a more distinctive design.

The story centers on a blond-haired kid named Rudger (Louie Rudge-Buchanan), who doesn’t really exist; he’s a figment of the imagination of young Amanda (Evie Kiszel), whose mother owns a bookshop — a place ripe for creativity. A few months earlier, Amanda’s dad died, and she willed her loyal pretend friend into being. All “imaginaries” (as the film calls them) are born for a reason, and Rudger was Amanda’s way of coping with that loss. It should be said that Japanese culture doesn’t have an equivalent for the Western idea of imaginary friends, which means the movie must establish the concept before putting Amanda’s make-believe buddy in peril.

To that end, “The Imaginary” opens with a spectacular demonstration of the power of Amanda’s creativity: She conjures an adventure-filled dream world of magical creatures, impossible physics (water flows upwards) and the sort of better-than-perfect skies one sees only in Mamoru Hosoda movies. At less than three minutes, this awe-inspiring amuse bouche is plenty to win us over, but also something of a tease — not nearly enough time to spend in Amanda’s make-believe domain.

Nearly all of what follows takes place in the real world, where a bald man with a bulbous nose and a flashy aloha shirt is on the lookout for imaginaries. Introducing himself as Mr. Bunting (Jeremy Swift), this sinister stranger is accompanied by a ghostly long-haired girl with pale skin and hollow eye sockets — obviously his own imaginary, though she looks like she might have escaped from a J-horror movie like “The Ring” or “The Grudge.” Though Mr. Bunting could pass for a clueless tourist, he’s in fact a centuries old villain who has achieved immortality by feeding off other children’s imaginaries. Once he gets a whiff of Rudger, he’s determined to consume Amanda’s make-believe companion.

Amanda and Rudger have a three-pronged pact: Whatever happens, never disappear, protect each other and never cry. But Mr. Bunting is hardly the only threat to their friendship. All around them, in the normal course of growing up, other children are abandoning their imaginary friends, who start to fade the instant their creators forget them, dissolving into clouds of yellow pixie dust. Though Amanda and Rudger’s bond seems stronger than that, it’s put in jeopardy when she’s hit by a car early in the film. The accident lands her in a coma, and leaves Rudger in danger of erasure — at which point, the narrative leaves Amanda and follows her endangered imaginary.

As in Pixar classic “Monsters Inc.” or John Krasinski’s recent “IF,” the movie spins an elaborate system of rules for entities that don’t really exist. Here, Rudger is temporarily spared from disappearing by Jinzan (Kal Penn), an odd-eyed cat who leads him to a library full of abandoned imaginaries, team-captained by a sassy girl named Lizzie (Hayley Atwell). Apart from Lizzie and Rudger, all the other invisible friends are fantastical-looking whatzits — a pink hippo, a rattly skeleton, a burlesque phonograph — that could pass as Pokémon creatures or “Belle” avatars. In theory, these misfits would all be at risk from Mr. Bunting, who remains steadfastly obsessed with eating Rudger instead.

It should be no surprised that a movie called “The Imaginary” all but erupts with whimsical ideas, and on that front, this fanciful offering works. But it falls short in other fundamental ways, from the voice work (Studio Ponoc produces its own English-language dubs, but only Atwell breathes real personality into her performance) to the anime characters’ limited range of expressions. Too often, cookie-cutter faces freeze, unblinking and inscrutable but for their flapping mouths. Adapting a pre-existing novel gave Nishimura and Momose a solid starting point, but next time out, they’d do well to lean more on their own imaginations.

“The Imaginary” opens in limited U.S. theaters on June 28, followed one week later by a streaming release via Netflix, where both English- and Japanese-language versions are available.

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