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'The Imaginary' review: Filled with imagination, horror, and heart

Movie Reviews

‘The Imaginary’ review: Filled with imagination, horror, and heart

Studio Ponic’s second feature is full of imagination, but can it escape from the shadow of Ghibli?

It is hard to know what is the future of Studio Ghibli as co-founder Hayao Miyazaki might have made his final masterpiece last year with The Boy and the Heron. In the meantime, animators who had formerly worked for Ghibli had formed Studio Ponoc. Starting with 2017’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower. While being more enjoyable and magical than most western children’s movies, it does seem like the staff of Ponoc are doing Ghibli karaoke. We had to wait seven years for another feature and can they escape the shadow of their renowned predecessor? 

Based on the 2014 British children’s novel of the same name by A. F. Harrold, The Imaginary is about a small girl, Amanda (Rio Suzuki), and her imaginary friend, Rudger (Kokoro Terada), as their shared existence is confined to the attic of Amanda’s residence, where they delve into her vibrant imagination. However, upon being confronted by the Imaginary-hunting Mr. Bunting (Issey Ogata), which leads to a tragic accident, Amanda and Rudger are suddenly separated, leaving the latter to find himself in a sanctuary for forgotten Imaginaries.

Considering it was originally released in Japan last December, The Imaginary now being released internationally via Netflix could not have been at a better time as 2024 is already the year of the imaginary friend movie IF and Imaginary, both of which were not well-received. Directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, who worked as an animator on Ghibli classics like Spirited Away and Whisper of the Heart, his latest feature embraces the flights of fancy that don’t hold back on how wild a child’s imagination, as seen in Amanda and Rudger’s initial adventure. 

As we delve more into “the town of Imaginaries”, don’t bother trying to make sense of the world-building, which does allow the animators from Ponoc to present imaginative worlds through stunning hand-drawn animation. The town itself is the standout set-piece as not only do you have the varying designs of the Imaginaries themselves – showing that they didn’t all originate from a child’s mind – but also this world changes every day ranging from European cityscapes to Japan’s Edo period. 

For as much beauty that The Imaginary can throw, there is an element of darkness lurking in the corner, best personified by the creepy adult Mr. Bunting who will surely give kids nightmares, as well as his own imaginary, which could rival the ghostly girls that you often see in J-horror. Contrasting the imaginative worlds with the realistic-drawn English background, you also have the story of a girl and her widowed mother who are grieving over the passing of Amanda’s father, and out of that grief came the creation of Rudger. Although there is a priority of being a thrilling fantasy adventure over a story that challenges with profound themes, there is enough of an emotional core that pays off in the climatic minutes.

'The Imaginary' review: Filled with imagination, horror, and heart
‘The Imaginary’ review: Filled with imagination, horror, and heart
The Imaginary
While there is still the sense of Ghibli karaoke, and doesn’t reach the heights of Spirited Away, Studio Ponoc’s latest feature is a fantasy romp filled with imagination, horror and heart.
Reader Rating1 Votes
8.3
Stunning hand-drawn animation that showcases imaginative worlds and character designs.
An adventure narrative that balances the fancy and the horror.
A touching story about grief and family...
...even if it doesn't cling onto profound themes.
Studio Ponoc is still learning from the betters that are Studio Ghibli.
8.5
Great

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