Limited Imagination — IF

William J Hammon
11 min readMay 28, 2024

I’ve said before in this space that children are a lot more intelligent than we often give them credit. This is especially true when it comes to cinema, as there’s been a rampant increase in the number of films directed at kids that follow a strict formula (concocted by adults who only see dollar signs rather than the wonder of curiosity) designed to pander to perceived sensibilities rather than let the limitless potential of their young minds take flight. Part of this motivation is to sell toys, while another sizeable chunk is the fear of doing anything that might upset the kiddies, and by extension, their parents, leading to a potential loss at the box office.

Take for example, Bambi, universally considered one of the greatest animated films of all time. It has one of the most memorable villains in movie history, Man. Humanity kills Bambi’s mom, along with several other animals, putting the title deer’s journey of growth and discovery in a near-constant state of peril. This is a crucial lesson for young audiences, in that it teaches them early about the concept of mortality, but also instills a value for life, family, and loyal vigilance towards those we hold dearest to us. And it’s done without ever actually seeing the antagonist in the flesh. Man is simply a nebulous concept, utterly without form (apart from distant silhouettes), and it’s left up to the kids to fill in the gaps. There’s fear in the unknown, and wisdom in putting your own face on it once you have enough information. It’s called learning, and it should always be encouraged.

But what’s the takeaway from the corporate standpoint? It makes little ones cry, so we can’t have that. Oh, we can still have dead parents (so, so many dead parents), but we can’t form relationships with them that actually drive the narrative and the development of the young main character. They just have to be “gone,” with perhaps a scene or two to remind the tykes about the loss, but never truly experience it, because that might make them question why they want a doll so badly. And as for baddies? You either have them so cartoonishly obvious, or you don’t have them at all. Nuance is not for the young (or anyone if we’re being pure capitalists). We just have to keep things safe and familiar for maximum profit.

This, at its core, is the problem with IF, the latest directorial effort from John Krasinski, featuring a young girl (Cailey Fleming from The Walking Dead) and Ryan Reynolds trying to help imaginary friends find children to play with. To be clear, this is a perfectly fine movie, in that it’s entertaining on a surface level with a few moments of brilliance, but you can also see every indication of a marketing team trying to manipulate the most impressionable viewers, creating yet another fine-tuned exercise in playing it safe and hopefully cashing checks, leaving the audience with a product that gets the job done if all you want to do is distract your kids, but given its subject matter, is shockingly lacking in imagination and creativity.

Ever since Krasinski caught lightning in a bottle with A Quiet Place, his output as a writer, director, and producer seems to be all about appeasing the suits and whatever paint-by-numbers scenario is most economical. That massive achievement in horror spawned a mediocre sequel that basically broke its own rules, and the third installment — a prequel coming next month — looks generic as all get out. Even his TV work on Jack Ryan is basically lather-rinse-repeat and is barely recognizable as something Tom Clancy created.

Things are no different here, as we are introduced to Bea (Fleming) through a narrated montage of her mother (Catharine Daddario) dying of cancer. Seriously, I want a 10-year moratorium on dead parents in children’s movies unless the death is actually germane to the plot. Here, it serves absolutely no purpose (the poor woman doesn’t even get a name — take THAT, Bechdel Test) other than to establish that the 12-year-old adolescent, who was once happy and full of artistic creativity, is somehow not anymore. I mean, I guess that works, along with Krasinski himself playing her father in need of heart surgery in order to pile it on, or we could just sum up her relative aloofness with the fact that SHE’S FUCKING 12! Jesus, can we just let kids be kids without trying to diagnose them, or in movie terms instill fake trauma to justify a personality?

Anyway, while Papa John awaits his life-or-death operation (explained so patronizingly as having a “broken heart” that can be “fixed”), Bea moves in with her grandmother Margaret (Fiona Shaw, her performance being a highlight of the proceedings), who digs out all of Bea’s old art supplies, but the tween isn’t really interested. Margaret does her best to keep Bea’s spirits up — and in fairness Bea doesn’t behave in any annoying sort of way — but there’s just a general air of trying to dance around the issue at hand. Even when Bea makes her daily visits to the hospital (where she befriends a klutz in a cast played by Alan Kim who’s there for no other reason but to be precocious), there’s this odd vibe where Bea is present in the moment, but not engaged with the reality around her.

This might be worth exploring, but it’s much more important to get to the merchandising opportunities, so we roll along to Bea getting a look at Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), an anthropomorphic butterfly designed like a rubber hose cartoon from the 1930s. This leads to encounters with a large purple monster who is DEFINITELY NOT GRIMACE named Blue (Steve Carell) and their friend/employer Cal (Reynolds), who live in the upstairs apartment in Margaret’s building. As Blossom explains, she and Blue are referred to as “IF”s, i.e. Imaginary Friends. Children dream them up and interact with them, but as inevitably happens, they grow up and forget about them, leaving them without a partner, so Cal has taken it upon himself to try to match IFs up with new kids.

I have to admit, this is an intriguing concept. I know this, because I’ve seen it before. We literally had Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends on Cartoon Network for years, and a decade ago Pixar filtered this entire premise, much more quickly and a lot less clumsily, through the character of Bing Bong in Inside Out. This is where the movie comes up so disappointingly short. We’re already through the first act, and all we’ve done is recycle the worst clichés from kiddie flicks and straight up rip off dozens of other properties. This is a story about IMAGINATION, so why are we defaulting to lazy derivativeness? Let your inner child soar. Come up with something completely bonkers and unheard of. Write some new rules rather than cribbing from others (and even then only following them when it’s convenient for the script to do so). Even Dad’s heart surgery, which is supposed to be the emotional driving force of the plot, is essentially put on the back burner for whatever shenanigans Bea and Cal get up to, popping in for a reminder whenever we need the tots to get worried that somehow everything won’t turn out fine because they don’t know any better.

Things do start to improve from there, however, as Cal takes Bea to a “retirement home” for IFs, located inside the swing ride at Coney Island. That’s at least interesting, even if it is trying to be an American version of Platform 9 3/4. Inside we meet Lewis (the late Louis Gossett Jr.; the film is dedicated in his memory), an old bear who was imagined over 90 years ago, and is somewhat modeled after Bobo the Muppet (in face anyway). He instigates the most creative scene in the entire film, where he asks the excited Bea if the cynical Cal has given her a full tour of the facility. When she says he hasn’t, he encourages her to give him the tour instead, using her imagination to recreate the home to her own specifications. This is a sequence that borders on pure magic, with floors and walls changing on a dime, rooms appearing out of nowhere, an entire line of Blossoms doing an Esther Williams-style cinematic pool swimming sequence, Cal falling into and emerging from paintings, and a dance number set to Tina Turner that is just inspired. The visuals are amazing, and the lighthearted chaos is spectacular. If this was the entire movie, it’d be among the best of the year.

Unfortunately, it’s just not. There are a few more moments like it, along with several solid laughs. And I can admit there was one scene that got me just a little bit choked up (I won’t spoil, but it also involves dance), so this isn’t a failure. It’s just a misfire. Take two other examples from the back half of the film as evidence. The first is the collection of IFs that we meet in the home. Some of them have basic designs, like a robot or gummy bear, while others are much more lively like an overzealous film noir-style private investigator. That’s all well and good, but you can tell that most of them only exist for a quick joke so Krasinski and Reynolds’ friends can have a voice cameo (they’re played by Jon Stewart, Amy Schumer, and Christopher Meloni respectively). However, the one that leaves the biggest impression is the one we don’t see, that being the invisible Keith (credited as “Introducing Brad Pitt,” similar to his blink-and-you-miss-it appearance in Deadpool 2), who never takes physical form and says nothing, but is blamed for every instance where someone trips in a hallway. That’s a fantastic runner, and it’s infinitely funnier than Schumer’s gummy farting for no reason.

Similarly, when matching the IFs with new kids doesn’t work out (after literally ONE attempt), Bea — with Lewis’ help in another great sequence that should be a much larger portion of the story — decides to switch gears and try to reunite the IFs with their original children, all of whom just happen to live in New York City for the sake of convenience even though we hear backstories about how the IFs come from all over the country. This leads to some really fun moments (particularly with Bobby Moynihan), but it also raises so many more questions that the film just doesn’t care to address, even though the littlest of little kids will instantly ask them. How are the IFs created? What happens if their original child dies, or refuses to remember them? What if (the movie likes to emphasize that phrase a lot without ever truly paying it off) a kid comes up with more than one imaginary friend over the course of their lives? Would that create a world of IFs that eventually takes up all the space on the Earth? Can the IFs interact with the material world or not? Is it really a good idea for adults to have IFs in a functioning society?

But the biggest problem of all with this idea is that it’s a fairly subtle way to give the studio execs exactly what they want. By changing the story to be about reuniting with our previous companions, this now becomes a tale about the value of nostalgia, and how kids and adults should surrender to it. Don’t think of anything new. Don’t come up with an original idea. Just go back to the one that made you happy in a bygone time, and don’t question it. And this is not to say that nostalgia doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s fun to reminisce, and can be comforting in a lot of situations. I don’t recall having an imaginary friend as a child, though I did talk to myself, so maybe that counts. Instead, my mom used to make up stories for my sister and I where the characters were just differently-named versions of us. For the life of me I can’t remember their names (I want to say it was something like “Honey Pie and Sugar Baby” or something similar), but it puts a smile on my face to think about the whole thing.

But here’s the difference. When I let that nostalgia wash over me, it’s for a brief reminder of a simpler time, a momentary pleasant thought, and in rare cases, a call to action. I don’t remember any of the content of those stories Mom told us, but I remember that she was able to make them up on the spot so that we could picture them in our heads, just one of many things she did to try to give us a better life than she had. That’s what makes me smile and want to be a better person in the year-plus since her passing. Similarly, I think I’ve mentioned this before, but as youngsters, we had a tradition where every holiday season, Mom would pull my sister and I out of school for one day each to “Go Elfing,” which was just a trip to the mall to do Christmas shopping so we could pick something out for each other. It’s also how we got the dog we had for most of my childhood and early adulthood. Thinking about that fills me with joy and love, and allows me to fantasize about doing that with my own kids one day, should I ever have any.

That’s what nostalgia should do, allow you to think fondly of the past as a way to move forward. To a very limited extent, this film does do that (again, in the scenes involving Moynihan). But the vast majority of this trip into the feels is about tethering yourself to those memories, losing yourself in them, and relying on them as a crutch because you’re somehow not a complete person without them. Once you’ve abandon all resistance to that, the film offers its characters as a substitute for that emotional void, available now at a Build-A-Bear Workshop near you. It’s comfort food that’s designed to make you not seek out anything else, so that you become reliant on a rejected boss from Cuphead or a big purple thing that totally should invite a lawsuit from McDonald’s. Live in the past, but not the present, and definitely don’t look to the future. That’s the moral through line here, and when the target audience for that message is a group so young that they haven’t developed critical thinking skills, it almost feels nefarious.

There are no villains, or even antagonists, in this movie, but I couldn’t help but feel that at times, the real obstacle was the very notion of original thought. In Bambi, we couldn’t see the danger, so we had to picture it for ourselves, and deal with the emotional consequences. In IF, it’s the opposite. There’s nothing to see here, except for what market research has told us to tell you that you should want to see, and you must rigidly adhere to that lest your mind wander into the less lucrative space of actual wonder. On the whole, this film is relatively harmless, but it really is dispiriting to see such potential be whittled and watered down to stuff we’ve all seen before, and in better forms. In that respect, it reminds me of Blue Beetle last year, where the Scarab suit told Jaime it could create anything he could imagine, and all he could come up with was a glowing sword. To settle for something so uninspired, all while engaging in the same cheap pathos tactics that studios have been employing for years, is to fly directly in the face of what you say you’re promoting. By doing so, you’re actively snuffing out creativity and imagination rather than encouraging it. That may be enough to make the kiddies excited for a little while, but like the generic IFs themselves, it will soon be easily forgotten.

And what then?

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you have an imaginary friend as a child, and if so, what were they like? Seriously, is no child capable of having a hero’s journey if their parents are alive and in good health? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content, and check out the entire BTRP Media Network at btrpmedia.com!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on May 28, 2024.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com