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Studio Ponoc’s Animated Adventure for Netflix

Studio Ponoc’s Animated Adventure for Netflix

Studio Ponoc’s Animated Adventure for Netflix

In the world of The Imaginary (Yaneura no Rajâ), every child has a secret friend, an invisible being with whom they create fictional scenarios and share their deepest secrets. For Amanda (voiced by Rio Suzuki), the protagonist of this sweet but sprawling Studio Ponoc film, that person is a sprightly and protective blond being named Rudger (Kokoro Terada). When Amanda comes home from school, they begin their adventures, flying across a grassy expanse populated by an industrious giant and a chatty squirrel or riding a musk ox through a snowy tundra. In the words of Rudger, “Amanda always imagines the most splendid worlds.” 

The Imaginary, which premiered in competition at the Annecy Animation Festival, is the second feature-length production from Studio Ponoc, following 2017’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It’s directed by Studio Ghibli alum Yoshiyuki Momose (Modest Heroes, Tomorrow’s Leaves) from a script by longtime Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (The Tale of The Princess Kaguya), based on the novel of the same name by A.F. Harrold. The film will open in select theaters June 28, ahead of its July 5 Netflix premiere.

The Imaginary

The Bottom Line

A mostly charming ode to imaginative thinking and reading.

Venue: Annecy International Animation Film Festival (Competition)
Release date: Friday, June 28 (select theaters), Friday, July 5 (streaming)
Cast: Kokoro Terada, Rio Suzuki, Sakura Andô, Riisa Naka, Takayuki Yamada, Issei Ogata, Akira Terao
Director: Yoshiyuki Momose
Screenwriter: Yoshiaki Nishimura, based on the novel by A.F. Harrold

Rated PG,
1 hour 48 minutes

The action follows Rudger as he discovers an entire world of imaginary friends while trying to protect himself and Amanda from a sinister figure. The story endears with its focus on the role of secret friends in a young person’s life. Nishimura litters his screenplay with poignant insights about the power of enterprising play that will inspire audiences of all ages to remember a time when they needed only to rely on their minds to conjure new worlds and scenarios.

The relationship between Amanda and Rudger is also inspiring. The clever pair act like siblings, complete with loving banter and random disagreements. However, for a film all about creative fancy, The Imaginary doesn’t always offer the kind of compelling moments one might expect. The fine animation can be blunted by a predilection for obvious exposition, dialogue that doesn’t stretch the imagination as much as it could. 

Rudger opens the film with three rules that govern his existence. “Amanda and I made a promise,” the hyperactive friend says in voiceover. “Whatever happens, never disappear, protect each other and never cry.”

That last point weighs heavy on The Imaginary because Amanda carries a profound grief throughout the film. Her father died (when is not specified), leaving the precocious child with her mother, Lizzie (Sakura Andô). Mother and daughter live above a bookstore, a shop that Amanda’s father ran until he passed. Lizzie doesn’t feel equipped to manage the place as successfully as her deceased husband, so at the beginning of the film she’s hunting for a new job. 

While her mother prepares for interviews and nurses a deep sadness, Amanda channels her grief into imaginative scenarios. The Imaginary foregrounds the school-aged child’s adventures with Rudger, showing the way the duo make their own fun. There’s a thrill to their brush with mystical aquatic life — otherwordly jellyfish, for instance — and the transitions between one environment and another. In one moment, the gelatinous creatures morph into a single being that engulfs the giggling pair before spitting them out into a lush field of flowers.

But Amanda doesn’t always imagine happy scenes; her imagination, realistically attuned to her mood, can also take nightmarish turns. In one scenario, a ride through a snowy winterland takes a dark turn when Amanda and Rudger must escape the grips of a yeti-like monster. 

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The film’s action kicks off when a strange and sly man, Mr. Bunting (Issei Ogata), knocks on the bookshop door claiming he is surveying children in the area. In reality, he hunts imaginary friends, eating them to keep his own mind sharp. Mr. Bunting is after Rudger, whom he believes is a quality imaginary.

During one unfortunate run-in, in which Rudger and Amanda try to flee from Mr. Bunting, Amanda gets hit by a car and ends up in a coma. Rudger, now unmoored from his creator, ends up in a place where abandoned imaginary friends live for eternity. This town is in a library and is powered by books, which hold some of the world’s most imaginative tales. The creatures — Old Dog (Akira Terao), a giant pink hippo, a curious clock and other human-adjacent friends like Rudger — live harmoniously as they wait to be claimed by new, younger kids. 

Although Rudger, who early in the film begs Amanda to let him walk through walls so he can see more of the world, finds this land fascinating, he misses his human companion. Despite the protestations of his new friends, which include a red and blue eyed feline named Zinzan (Takayuki Yamada) and the town’s de facto leader Emily (Riisa Naka), Rudger sets off to reconnect with Amanda.

The Imaginary’s narrative starts spreading itself too thinly at this point, as Rudger zigs and zags through different kids’ imaginations in order to find Amanda. Some of the threads, such as one in which Rudger and his ragtag group join a young boy’s space fantasy, are helpful because they explain the rules of this universe in which humans and their imaginary friends live alongside one another. But others take us farther than necessary from the main narrative, slowing the momentum.

The repeated confrontations with Mr. Bunting can be especially awkward because each one is filled with more predictable exposition about sight and perspective. “Everybody sees what they want to see, don’t they,” the slick older man says to Rudger at one point. “If they cannot see it, then they did not really want to see it.” The film could have used fewer variations of this cliché and opted instead for dialogue that didn’t weigh down the images with over-explanation. The most charming threads of The Imaginary have a light narrative touch. 

That the secret friends live in a library is one of the film’s most distinctive plot strands. The Imaginary will have particular resonance in the U.S., where these institutions are under serious attack from lack of funding and content censorship. (It’s notable that the English-language voice cast includes Reading Rainbow legend LaVar Burton as Old Dog.) With a precocious duo at its center and plentiful nods toward books as propellants for visionary thinking, The Imaginary affirms reading as a radical act.

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