Review: Creating a World of Imaginary Friends, IF Overstuffs Its Plot, Cast and Saccharine Message

When you line up an army of famous friends to do character voices and even manage to get Ryan Reynolds to star as the impish ringleader of a group of imaginary friends looking for kids to pair up with, and you still come up exasperatingly short in terms of entertainment, creativity, world building and even imagination, you’re in trouble. The “you” I’m referring to in this statement is IF writer/director John Krasinski, who also stars in his film about a girl whose mother is dead, whose father is in the hospital, and whose inability to cope with either of those realities sends her into an adventure into the world of IFs (imaginary friends). The concept is solid; the execution is an overly sentimental, often confusing mess.

The very charming Cailey Fleming plays Bea, whose father (Krasinski) is in the hospital with some treatable illness that is never specified, but apparently a single surgery will fix him right up. He seems to be checked into the hospital days before his procedure, just hanging out in his room in his everyday clothes, pretending to be plotting his escape. The hospital makes Bea anxious because her mother died years earlier, and the memories come flooding back about that understandably traumatic experience.

Bea goes to stay with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), and almost as soon as she arrives at her apartment, she notices that someone is following her around the neighborhood. Bea leads chase and is taken to the apartment just above her grandmother's, which is occupied by a guy named Cal (Reynolds), who isn’t particularly happy to see her until he realizes that she can see imaginary friends. She claims she never had one growing up, but soon she discovers that Cal has access to dozens of them, including Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who looks something like a 1930s animated character. But the real star of the IF world is Blue (Steve Carell), a massive, fluffy creature who sneezes a lot and has a big heart—comedy gold!

The rules of the IF world, like Blue, are fuzzy. Once a kid gets older and less in need of imaginary friends, the IFs disappear, but they are still very much lurking about, keeping track of their kid (or former kid), even through adulthood. Any time the adult version of an IFs kid remembers their IF, there’s a weird, glowing connection established, and it somehow re-energizes the IF. Cal and Bea decide to partner up to find new kids for a whole bunch of IFs, thinking that will give the IFs a new sense of purpose, but that doesn’t really go well. Then the plan shifts to reuniting IFs with their “adult kids” in the hopes that these adults can tap into their long-dormant power of imagination and childhood wonder. To what ends, I’m not exactly sure, but it makes people and IFs feel better, and maybe that’s the point.

Allow me to rattle off a handful of names that appear as IF voices, only to make the point that very few of them stand out as interesting characters, and even fewer of them are bizarre enough to result in laughter: Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Jon Stewart, Sebastian Maniscalco, Christopher Meloni, Richard Jenkins, Awkwafina, Keegan-Michael Key, Bradley Cooper (as an angry ice cube, angry because he lives in Arizona), Matthew Rhys, and Amy Schumer. The only reason I found George Clooney’s casting as an astronaut interesting is because, in my mind, he’s reviving his dead character from Gravity, and any kid that would make that guy his IF is alright by me. The only IF that made me feel anything is Louis Gossett Jr.’s as the elderly bear Lewis (he even uses a cane to walk), who at least takes the time to get to know Bea and help her figure out how to help the other IFs and herself in the process.

IF features a score by the great Michael Giacchino, cinematography by Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski, and a heart that’s in the right place though it can’t deliver the goods in term of storytelling. Even Reynolds doesn’t seem to give the movie his full attention, and even though he’s still cracking jokes and being charmingly disagreeable at times, it doesn’t feel sincere or inspired in any way. And not to get lost in the logic of a film made up of invisible characters, even though imaginary friends are real things to millions of kids. There’s no attempt here by Krasinski to even moderately dive into the phenomenon on a psychological level. Pixar’s Inside Out at least tried to give us a surface-level visualization of the range of childhood emotions; IF does no such thing, and the characters don’t seem to correspond to whatever their child was going through at the time of their creation. 

Even Bea’s emotional range seems stunted. She’s either happy or sad, and there doesn’t seem to be a real reason she can see IFs when no one else can. The rules about the function of IFs to adults don’t stay consistent, and by the end, things wrap up so neatly, I was ready to choke on all the saccharine and cheese (not a good combo). Even the film’s big twist at the end is highly predictable, not to mention the fact that a young girl running around with a grown-ass man feels creepy, and that’s never addressed. I’m sure most of the folks involved in the making of IF agreed to be a part of it so their kids would have something to watch, which is always a bad idea. The resulting work feels like the worst kind of pandering, and I can see legions of preteen boys and girls looking at their parents and realizing that they still see them like babies, instead of pre-adults eager for something a lot more challenging than this.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.