‘The Imaginary’ review: Netflix’s animated adventure dazzles — but how dark does it get?

What happens when a child forgets their imaginary friend?

This question has been at the heart of three films in 2024 so far: the creepy teddy bear horror offering Imaginary, the John Krasinski-directed family-comedy IF (short for Imaginary Friends), and Netflix’s animated adventure The Imaginary. But only this last title welcomes audiences into a glorious world of fantasy and feelings with a distinct Studio Ghibli vibe. 

The Imaginary director Yoshiyuki Momose comes by this influence honestly, as the animator worked on Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, Whisper of the Heart, and Spirited Away. Plus, the movie’s screenwriter and producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura, produced the Studio Ghibli films The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There, both of which snagged Oscar nominations.

This Studio Ponoc film offers a softer color palette, built on pastels and given enhanced depth with gentle gray shadows. Despite this seemingly sweet aesthetic, The Imaginary delves into some dark topics, including loneliness, grief, and death. With a creepy villain whose sidekick seems snatched from Ringu, this cartoon isn’t for all ages. But it is sensational. 

What’s The Imaginary about? 

Amanda and Rudger play in "The Imaginary."

Amanda and Rudger play in “The Imaginary.”
Credit: Netflix

From its opening voiceover of a young boy marveling at a world most don’t see, The Imaginary centers on Rudger (voiced in the English language dub by Louie Rudge-Buchanan), an easily spooked blonde who is the devoted best friend of Amanda (Evie Kiszel). With the sprawling physicality of a Miyazaki heroine and crispy short bangs that suggest an impromptu DIY haircut, she is a spark plug of impulse and excitement. Naturally, that’s a blessing and a curse for her single mum Lizzie (Hayley Atwell), who’s balancing parenthood with managing a failing bookshop.  

Cobbling together toys, props, and her trusty umbrella, Amanda composes epic odysseys for herself and Rudger, leaving a mess of water drops and toppled knickknacks for her mother to clean up. But this trio encounters real trouble when the bizarre Mr. Bunting (Jeremy Swift) pokes his ruddy nose into their shop.

A pushy stranger with a gruff mustache, he has with him a wan girl with long dark hair and soulless eyes. Curiously, Lizzie can’t see her. Shortly after this unnerving intrusion, a shocking turn of events separates Rudger and Amanda, forcing him out into the wider world. Now, the skittish sidekick must venture out to become his own hero, not only to reconnect with his best friend but also to save his fellow “imaginaries” from the vile Mr. Bunting and his J-horror companion. 

The Imaginary embraces the weird turns and deeper importance of playtime. 

Amanda and Rudger play in "The Imaginary."

Credit: Netflix

While the visual style is cuddly and cute, Nishimura’s script recognizes that kids dream up all kinds of dark and bonkers things. As Rudger wanders into the community of other imaginaries, he meets a quirky collection of characters, including a goggled girl with Main Character energy named Emily (Sky Katz), a big pink hippo called Snowflake (Roger Craig Smith), a grizzled cat (Kal Penn), a snuffly old dog (LeVar Burton), and a small but energetic skeleton dubbed Cruncher-of-Bones (Courtenay Taylor). They make for a chaotic crew, but Momose unifies them through a cohesive and charming aesthetic, as they tumble into scenarios involving space travel and high-stress ballet recitals. 

Within these surreal scenarios, Nishimura laces hints to what Amanda is coping with through her playtime with Rudger. For starters, she makes him promise: “Never disappear. Protect each other. And never cry.”

Mashable Top Stories

What happened that this moxie-filled girl needs such assurances? Why does she name a mythic imaginary beast after the “green lager” her mother favors at the end of a tough day? Why does she have a keepsakes box with a note on it telling Rudger to KEEP OUT? While Rudger races blindly just to reunite with her, the audience is urged to wonder what he’s missing amid his harried heroics. 

What age is The Imaginary suitable for? 

Amanda's room in "The Imaginary."

Credit: Netflix

Rated PG, The Imaginary might require some parental guidance for younger audiences. You know your kid better than anyone else, so rather than lay down a number, allow me to give a hint to what The Imaginary gets into — without spoilers. 

For much of the film, Rudger’s biggest fear is Amanda forgetting him, which would result in him literally disappearing. So, there’s some existential dread hitting in a way kids can understand — as will be illustrated by other characters. But there are bigger issues of loss as Amanda faces a health crisis and a traumatic past event that inspired her to dream up Rudger in the first place. Basically, if you’re uncomfortable talking about death with your kid, maybe your household isn’t quite The Imaginary-ready yet. 

The other element I’d flag would be for kids sensitive to scares. While Momose is mindful to keep a pivotal moment of violence offscreen, Mr. Bunting and his child cohort can be pretty frightening. Both have the ability to use imagination to contort themselves into the stuff of nightmares. Even as an adult, I winced at some of these scenes. While most of The Imaginary is whimsical, these bites —albeit brief — reach Coraline-levels of disturbing.

The voice cast for The Imaginary’s English dub is divine. 

Rudger looks upon Amanda's imagination land.

Credit: Netflix

Sometimes the voice-casting for animated films can feel more like a grasp at cachet than actually finding a vibe match — looking at you, Super Mario Bros Movie and The Garfield Movie! Smartly, Studio Ponoc chose talent that comes alive in voice work over favoring flashy names. Sure, Atwell’s voice is recognizable, but not distractingly so. She’s well-suited to the role of a mother who is warm but also pretty understandably frustrated by her thrill-seeking youngster. 

Child actors Evie Kiszel and Louie Rudge-Buchanan bring an authentic youthfulness to their roles. The former imbues Amanda with a mix of mischievousness and feigned ambivalence that instantly defines the strong facade of this wounded little girl. The latter rattles in nervousness at the start, but slowly steadies his delivery as Rudger grows more autonomous. Essentially, these talented children truly do chart the evolution of their characters through their vocal performances alone. 

Elsewhere, Swift is jaunty but menacing as Mr. Bunting, bringing a relish for wickedness that echoes the best Disney villains. Katz is so lively and engaging as Emily, it’s easy to wish for a spinoff for this punky ego-booster. Taylor offers Pokemon energy to Cruncher-of-Bones, assuring the creepy name and design aren’t too much for little kids. Penn brings a smoky calm to the wise feline Zinzan. But my personal favorite is Burton as the old dog. 

In the interest of full transparency, my brain is hardwired to take a breath and listen up when I hear LeVar Burton, the former host of Reading Rainbow. Whether I’m rewatching him on Star Trek, hearing him as the voice of Bubble on Adventure Time, or cuing up his podcast LeVar Burton Reads, there’s an instant comfort in his buttery tones. The Imaginary makes great use of Burton in a small but pivotal role. It almost doesn’t matter what his old dog says, because the very presence of this voice assures us that we’ll be okay, come what may. 

In Momose’s richly realized world, where anything can be dreamed up, there’s splendid spectacle in the imagined and the jolting realities that Rudger and Amanda encounter. Nishimura’s script charts an adventure that reflects the travails of growing up, learning about the wider world, and confronting hard truths. Using a familiar animation style with a gentler color palette, Momose gives us a steady hand to hold as The Imaginary takes dark turns. And his terrific voice cast brings to vibrant life an eclectic cavalcade of characters. 

If you love Studio Ghibli, you won’t want to miss a film that feels like a cousin to its fantastical family. If you love animation that makes you gasp, giggle, and weep, you won’t want to miss The Imaginary. And you’ve got young ones who are sensitive to scares and the unavoidable terror of mortality, well, The Imaginary will be on Netflix when they are ready. Rudger will be there waiting patiently.

The Imaginary was reviewed out of the Annecy Festival. The film will debut on Netflix on July 5.


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