‘IF’ review: Occasionally clever comedy lacks the emotion, ingenuity a great family film needs

Bea (Cailey Fleming) can see other children’s imaginary friends, including Blue (voiced by Steve Carell) in “IF.”

Paramount Pictures

We often talk about how the best family films from Pixar and Dreamworks et al. work on two levels, with screen-popping colors and silly comedy and lovable characters to keep the kids amused, and enough sly humor and winking references to entertain the adults as well.

Writer-director John Krasinski’s “IF” is a reminder of how difficult it is to pull off that feat, as this well-intentioned and intermittently clever blend of live action and animation is so murky and slow-paced the grown-ups will get restless, while it falls short when it comes to creating truly memorable CGI characters and providing a true sense of joy.

At times the proceedings are downright grim, what with a mom dying in the opening prologue and a dad facing what appears to be life-threatening surgery, and a rest home for imaginary friends that initially looks like a terribly sad retirement residence. This is Krasinski’s fifth feature film as director and he has proved to be a skilled filmmaker (especially with “A Quiet Place” I and II), and while it’s clear he’s aiming for an instant classic in the genre, when it comes to delivering an uplifting and emotionally resonant fable, he’s not yet close to being in the same league as Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.”, “Up,” “Inside Out”) or a Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”).


Paramount Pictures presents a film written and directed by John Krasinski. Running time: 104 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements and mild language). Opens Thursday at local theaters.

With echoes of everything from the animated TV series “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” to movies such as “Harvey” (which of course pops up on a TV at one point) and “A Monster Calls” and, yes, “Monsters, Inc.” and “Inside Out,” the premise of “IF” (which stands for “Imaginary Friends,” which would have been a better title) says every kid has an imaginary friend — but once you reach a certain age, you put away childish things and forget about that IF. So, what then happens to the IF? In this telling of the tale, these creatures, who can be anything from an alligator to a unicorn to a mouse with an attitude to a dog who doubles as a superhero to a bubble to a glass of ice water, vanish from their person’s world and are left in a state of limbo, hoping to be matched with another child. If that doesn’t happen, well, it’s implied that they’ll eventually cease to be. Yikes.

“IF” opens with a lovely and heart-tugging prologue in which see a little girl named Bea with her loving parents, who clearly encourage her to use her imagination based on all the creative scenarios we see playing out — but when the beatific mom (Catharine Daddario) starts looking gaunt and wearing head scarves, we know she’s doomed. Cut to a number of years later, with Bea (Cailey Fleming) now 12 years old and moving into a brownstone apartment in Brooklyn with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), because Bea’s dad (Krasinski) is in the hospital, facing some type of heart surgery that is never clearly explained.

The butterfly-like Blossom (voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is one of the creepier imaginary friends in “IF.”

Paramount Pictures

In an apartment a floor above her grandmother’s, Bea discovers a mysterious and rather gloomy man named Cal (Ryan Reynolds), who is the caretaker of … a group of IFs. Amazingly, Bea can seem them all, including the enormous and furry Blue (Steve Carell), who is actually purple but was named by a color-blind child, and Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a combination butterfly and human with big wide eyes, who has a charming personality but quite frankly looks a little creepy.

Dad spends day after day in the hospital, with apparently no other friends or relatives other than Bea visiting him. Bummer. At the hospital, Bea strikes up a friendship with another patient, the adorably cheerful Benjamin (Alan Kim), who has three major broken bones from two separate incidents which are never explained, leaving us feeling uneasy about Benjamin’s home life.

Cal (Ryan Reynolds) is the caretaker for Lewis (voice of Louis Gossett Jr.) and other retired imaginary friends.

Paramount Pictures

“IF” finally kicks into a more whimsical gear when Cal takes Bea to Coney Island, where Bea discovers a hidden world of IFs and we’re treated to an extended and quite peppy Broadway-style musical number. Finally getting into the spirit of things, Cal regains a bit of his sparkle and agrees to help Bea match all these “retired” IFs with some new kids. (The IFs are voiced by a myriad of big stars, including Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Maya Rudolph, George Clooney, Amy Schumer, Blake Lively, the late, great Louis Gossett Jr. and many more and that’s all well and good, but at times it’s distracting to hear so many familiar voices.)

The various IFs all have winning personalities, but they’re not the most visually huggable group. Cailey Fleming is outstanding in a role that demands a lot of emotionally heavy lifting, and Ryan Reynolds reminds us he can do a lot more than his wisenheimer persona. Still, “IF” never quite soars, never fully grabs our hearts, never fully captivates our imagination.

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