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The Imaginary Review

Studio Ponoc’s The Imaginary portrays the depths of humanity and creativity through the eyes of young Amanda (voice of Evie Kiszel) and her imaginary companion, Rudger (Louie Rudge-Buchanan), a boy no one can see imagined by Amanda to share her thrilling make-believe adventures. But when Rudger, suddenly alone, arrives at The Town of Imaginaries, where forgotten Imaginaries live and find work, he faces a mysterious threat.

On July 5, 2024, The Imaginary premieres on Netflix, and I’m warning you to get tissues before you start streaming. The anime is directed by Yoshiyuki Momose (Spirited Away) and will tug at every heartstring you have in your body. It’s based on the award-winning novel of the same name by A.F. Harrold and illustrated by Emily Gravett, and it’s one of those stories that might just get you in the gut and maybe even bring up some childhood memories. It certainly did for me.

The Imaginary Review

We’re introduced to Rudger, Amanda’s imaginary friend, who just adores her and loves her imagination. We learn that Amanda’s father isn’t around, and she lives in her mother, Lizzie’s (Hayley Atwell) bookstore. Lizzie is doing her best and is very kind, but she’s struggling.

Amanda, however, is lost in her imagination with her “Imaginary.” That’s not a bad thing at all. They have a motto about protecting each other and never crying, but it’s clear early on that she created Rudger after her father left.

The Imaginary Review

While the story of Amanda is a big part of it, it’s largely because she is a big part of Rudger’s life. She’s everything to him. She created him three years, three weeks, and three days ago (implied to be when her dad left), and the adventures they go on look visually like something Miyazaki created, meaning the joy and spirit in them and the complexity of simplicity are all over this.

I’m not trying to sound pretentious here. It’s just that it completely taps into the feel of how detailed and rich a kid’s imagination can be, but the simplicity of the stories they tell themselves because they have only lived so much.

Studio Ponoc movie.

Again, it’s really Rudger’s story, as he and Amanda run into a very scary man named Mr. Bunting (Jeremy Swift) and his own Imaginary, a girl who looks like she stepped right out of The Ring. He wants Lizzie to do a survey on children, but it’s clear that what he’s really there for is to eat other Imaginaries so he can live forever. He feels off right from the moment we meet him because he’s an adult with an Imaginary, when we all know (RIP Bing Bong from Inside Out) that at some point, they fade from our memories. (Seriously, tissues. Maybe buy them in bulk.)

In fact, one of the main themes in the film is about letting go, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, the passing of our childhoods, or the sadness we’ve been holding onto. It’s also very clear that while it’s a good idea to revisit our childhood imaginations, we can’t live there as adults any more than a child can be a grownup.

Studio Ponoc movie.

After an incident where Rudger can’t reach Amanda anymore, Rudger is taken to a place where Imaginaries live once their kid forgets them, grows up, or passes. (You may want to warn your kids that there is some discussion of the death of children in the film, but it’s handled very well.) It’s actually in a library, where they can live in the imaginations of every author, the imaginations of their former humans, and go on adventures with kids who need a friend. Every once in a while, one gets picked as a new human’s bestie, and the one we see … let’s just say you’ll want a plushie immediately.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot, but there is another message in here that is pretty wonderful for children. All that matters is the story you believe, and memories of a lovely time or an important person stay with you, no matter what happens. This is even true when you don’t think about them all the time.

Studio Ponoc movie.

There is so much to love in this film. The animation is like a cross between Miyazaki films and Your Name from Makoto Shinkai, with fabulous creatures and shimmering flights of fancy. The scene in the library with the variety of Imaginaries is so joyful that it made me less self-conscious about the one I had, which was a ghost in a sheet that I decided was real because of the shape in a sheet of foam.

There was a sentient flower pot, a robot, a hippo, a tiny skeleton called Cruncher of Bones, a tomato, dancing mice, a toaster, and even the Imaginaries for famous people like Picasso, Shakespeare, and Beethoven.

Studio Ponoc movie.

There is some light horror in here as well, but not enough to really scare kids. It feels more like … the feeling of running quickly into and out of the basement as a little kid because you think something might get you, which is more exhilaration and shudders than real fear. One thing that might feel a bit off to you (but probably won’t to your kids) is the sort of rambling story that smacks of a small child telling you a story that doesn’t quite stay on topic.

I haven’t read the book, but I feel like this might have worked better as a limited series adaptation. I wanted to spend more time in the library and learn more about Bunting, who is still something of a mystery. Don’t let that stop you from watching. It’s really affecting, and it will probably make you want to revisit some books from your childhood.


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