REVIEW – ‘IF’ strikes the right balance between hilarious and heartwarming

After dazzling with his terrifying thriller A Quiet Place and its equally terrific sequel A Quiet Place Part II, there would be few expecting writer/director John Krasinski to pick a family fantasy comedy as his next film. Then again, he’s not the first director with such a wild genre shift in their filmography. Robert Rodriguez’s resume includes both From Dusk Till Dawn and Spy Kids. Martin Scorsese gave us Shutter Island and Hugo. George Miller, the man behind the Mad Max franchise, is also responsible for Babe and Happy Feet. And, of course, Steven Spielberg delivered both Jaws and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. Krasinski is clearly in good company.

With the infectiously sweet and beautifully wholesome IF, Krasinski proves he’s an impressively adaptable filmmaker suited for any genre of cinema. A charming ode to the imagination-filled days of childhood and a poignant portrait of the follies of growing up too soon, IF strikes the right balance between hilarious and heartwarming. A film that elicits an equal measure of laughs and tears, Krasinski delivers a flawed but loveable winner.

The film centres on 12-year-old Bea (Cailey Fleming) whose childhood seemingly ended the day she tragically lost her beloved mother (Catharine Daddario). While her younger days were spent playing dress up and drawing fantastical images, she’s turned her back on the concept of life ever being fun. Despite losing his wife, her adorably goofy father (Krasinski) still prefers to look on the bright side of life; something he constantly attempts to impart to his daughter.

After moving in with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw), Bea crosses paths with her curmudgeonly upstairs neighbour Cal (Ryan Reynolds) and what she mistakenly believes is his daughter. After following the pair back to Cal’s apartment, Bea is shocked to discover Cal’s companion is actually Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a sweet-natured human/butterfly hybrid. And, thus, Bea is unexpectedly introduced to the mythical world of IFs aka imaginary friends.

While most kids grow up and inherently forget their IFs, Cal is blessed with the ability to see a menagerie of creatures who now roam around like lost souls without a partner. In a bid to find new children for the IFs to pair with, Cal runs a pseudo-matchmaking service for those stuck at the Memory Lane Retirement Home. Given Bea is the first human Cal has ever met with a similar ability to his own, they join forces to locate youngsters to potentially match with his roster of misplaced IFs including kindly purple furry monster Blue (Steve Carell).

A film that’s aiming to be one of those rare family films that equally hits audiences both young and old, it’s clear Krasinski has been influenced by the emotionally resonant delights of Pixar (think Monsters Inc. and Inside Out) and Studio Ghibli (see My Neighbor Totoro and The Boy and the Heron). The idea of a young protagonist robbed of a childhood due to a traumatic event isn’t exactly the freshest narrative idea. But it’s one that always works well cinematically and hits home for those who were forced to mature before they should have.

Krasinski is tackling some heavy material here, but he’s wise enough to balance it with lashings of sweetness and light-hearted humour. Again, it’s not the most original idea to present a tale that focuses on the importance of keeping hold of the boundless joy and limitless imagination that come with childhood. It’s basically Pixar’s bread and butter. Yet, it’s a lesson that’s never lost its pertinency, especially at a time when kids seem to become young adults far too early and the concept of fun is lost on most grown-ups.

While Krasinski’s screenplay may lack originality, you won’t be saying the same about the sensational character designs, all brought to life by a staggering ensemble voice cast and beautiful CGI work from the wizards at Framestore. Given today’s cinematic obsession with existing IPs and franchises, there was likely the temptation to fill this film with characters and toys already familiar to an audience. But children create imaginary friends from thin air and Krasinski thankfully challenges himself to craft a quirky and wholly original plethora of wonderfully endearing and impressively designed IFs that all get their moment to shine.

To name just a few, this cast of characters includes an ice cube floating in a glass of water (Bradley Cooper); an anthropomorphic sunflower (Matt Damon); a gelatinous blob of green goo (Keegan-Michael Key); a self-conscious bubble (Awkwafina); a giant gummy bear (Amy Schumer); a superhero dog (Sam Rockwell); an astronaut (George Clooney); a flaming marshmallow (Krasinski pulling quadruple duty); and a fluffy pink alligator (Maya Rudolph). Unsurprisingly, Krasinski and Reynolds recruit their wives to join the fun with Emily Blunt and Blake Lively voicing a bubbly unicorn and caring cat in an octopus costume, respectively. It’s a mind-blowing voice cast, even if most of them only offer a few lines of dialogue that likely took one day to record.

Carell and Waller-Bridge get the lion’s share of the imaginary friend limelight with two charming performances that tap into the pain of two IFs still clinging to the memories of the kids they said goodbye to decades ago. While the other IFs search for new playmates, Blue and Blossom lovingly attempt to reunite with their former companions. Carell is delightful as the Grimace-esque fuzzy purple creature with unlimited energy and a penchant for sneezing at the wrong moment. The ever-reliable Waller-Bridge brings a touch of gravitas to the film, particularly in a touching moment where she dances ballet one more time with her ex-buddy.

Playing a grumpy, sarcastic schmuck is hardly a stretch for someone like Reynolds, but it’s a role he always plays effortlessly solidly. There is an underlying sadness in Cal that offers Reynolds the chance to dig a little deeper, especially in the film’s emotional third act. But this film ultimately belongs to Fleming who delivers what will likely be one of the most impressive youth performances of the year. The tragedy of Bea’s situation is wonderfully conveyed in Fleming’s wildly expressive eyes and it’s gorgeous to watch the light return to her personality as she reconnects with the happiness she lost years earlier.

There are some minor pacing issues here where Krasinski fails to properly explore several narrative threads to give them the depth they deserve, namely the somewhat muddled inclusion of the father character he’s playing. It’s a classic case of too many characters and not enough running time, but it’s something that won’t register a blip with younger viewers. They’ll be too busy being dazzled by the IFs and their wacky hijinks and unique personality traits plus a brilliantly staged musical number set to Tina Turner’s “Better Be Good to Me.” Heck, maybe Krasinski should tackle a movie musical next.

Elevated by a typically magnificent score by the legendary Michael Giacchino, warm cinematography from Oscar-winner Janusz Kamiński, and a tear-inducing ending that feels like the kind of magic Disney used to deliver, there’s a lot to love about a big-hearted and delightfully fun charmer like IF. It’s undeniably familiar but entirely effective with a timely message of the power of imagination and why we should never lose touch with our childhood whimsy.

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, John Krasinski, Fiona Shaw, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Louis Gossett Jr., Steve Carell
Director: John Krasinski
Producers: John Krasinski, Allyson Seeger, Andrew Form, Ryan Reynolds
Screenplay: John Krasinski
Cinematography: Janusz Kamiński
Production Design: Jess Gonchor
Costume Design: Jenny Eagan
Editors: Christopher Rouse, Andy Canny
Music: Michael Giacchino

Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: 16th May 2024 (Australia)

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