If (PG) ★★

Review Date: May 17th, 2024

In making IF, writer/director John Krasinski's heart was almost certainly in the right place. The movie wants to be an ode to the innocent magic of childhood and how we might be in a better place as adults if we could remember those qualities and engage with them. The problem is that a movie - any movie - needs more than fine sentiments and that's where IF fails. The narrative is all over the place. Character motivation is confusing. And, worst of all, the story simply isn't interesting. Sure, there are enough cute animated creatures to entertain younger kids (target audience: 6-10) but there's not enough substance to keep parents from wishing they were next door watching something less snooze-inducing.

Krasinski swings big and misses bigger. At varying times during the course of IF, I was reminded of the likes of Toy Story 3 (the sadness of outgrowing childhood), Big (bringing the exuberance of youth to a jaded adult world), Monsters Inc. (furry monsters invading the imaginations of children), and A Monster Calls (a child using her imagination to cope with a real-life tragedy). Although such comparisons might seem complimentary, they serve to illustrate how short IF comes up.

The core problem may be related to a lack of focus on Krasinski's part. He seems only vaguely to recognize what he wants to achieve. He seeks to make a family film that explores childhood and imagination. The vehicle is the "IF" (Imaginary Friend) of the title and he creates all manner of adorable, quirky, and weird creatures to populate his world, which exists mostly in the mind of the lead character, a 12-year old girl named Bea (Cailey Fleming). But the narrative is threadbare, lacking in coherence and consistency. Sure, Bea may be following her own version of the Yellow Brick Road with companions Cal (Ryan Reynolds) and Blue (Steve Carrell) alongside, but what's the destination? And, more importantly, with no Wicked Witch of the West stand-in, where's the conflict?

Early during the proceedings, we learn that Bea lost her mother to cancer a few years ago. (A flashback montage provides this information.) Now, her father (Krasinski) is entering the same hospital where her mother died in order to have a heart operation. Bea is surprisingly calm about this, although that may be mostly for show. While her father is unavailable as a care-giver, she moves in with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), who lives in the same apartment where Bea spent a long-ago summer. Soon after moving in, Bea discovers that she can see all the Imaginary Friends that have been forgotten by their children. (Yes, there's a Sixth Sense vibe here.) Cal, a man who lives upstairs, is like Bea - he is cursed with seeing them as well - and he has set up a matchmaking service hoping to pair the orphaned IFs with new children. Bea decides to join his endeavor to give her something to do beside visiting her father at the hospital.

On the craft side, there are no issues. The special effects are top-notch and some of the creatures are occasionally amusing. In terms of star power, probably everyone who knows (and likes) Krasinski contributes a voice to the project. Although the only human stars of note are Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, Fiona Shaw, and Krasinski, the vocal cast is stunningly top-heavy: Steve Carrell, Emily Blunt, Louis Gossett Jr. (RIP), Awkwafina, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon, Bill Hader, Keegan-Michael Key, Blake Lively, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Amy Schumer, Jon Stewart...the list goes on.

As I indicated above, there is an audience for the film. Although some of the themes may be too deep for the youngest children, elementary school-age kids may become engaged without recognizing some of the obvious problems. I suspect, however, that when Paramount greenlit the project, they weren't anticipating such a limited target demographic. In the wake of the success of A Quiet Place and its sequel, Krasinski built up enough goodwill that the studio was willing to trust his judgment. Sadly, IF shows that such trust may have been misplaced. Wherever things went wrong, we're left with a disappointing result and a chance to ponder what this might have been if only a different path had been taken.

© 2024 James Berardinelli