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'IF' only! These imaginary friends are sweet, but could have been so much more

Bea (Cailey Fleming) and Blue (voiced by Steve Carell) in IF.
Paramount Pictures
Bea (Cailey Fleming) and Blue (voiced by Steve Carell) in IF.

The third installment in John Krasinski's blockbuster horror franchise A Quiet Place will soon employ noise-triggered monsters to scare audiences shoutless. But the filmmaker is starting the summer with sweeter monsters — the sweetest, really — in IF.

Which doesn't mean they don't cause 12-year-old Bea (Walking Dead's Cailey Fleming) to faint right away the first time she sees them — though in fairness, she's got a lot on her mind. Having already lost her mom to cancer, she's moving in with her grandma for a bit while her dad's in the hospital awaiting surgery.

Still, when wouldn't encountering a giant plush critter in the apartment upstairs be startling, even if he turns out to be a sweetheart voiced by Steve Carell? It's an imaginary friend (an "IF," in his parlance) of a kid who's long forgotten about him — and who, being colorblind, named him "Blue" even though he's purple.

Also up there is Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a life-size ballerina doll, and the apartment's harried resident, Cal (Ryan Reynolds), the only person besides Bea who seems able to see IFs.

Bea has been trying to be very grown up for her dad, played by director Krasinski. When she visits him at the hospital, he starts dancing with his I.V. pole and cracking jokes, and she has to tell him to dial things back a bit. As the film goes on, you may be tempted to echo that with regard to his directing, but things are certainly lively as the IFs explain that they've started a matchmaking agency to help fellow imaginary friends find new kids. Bea volunteers to help, and is soon introduced to a whole lot of critters – unicorns, dragons, even a flaming marshmallow — at an IF retirement home in Coney Island.

All of which gives Krasinski an excuse to call in an army of digital animators, first to bring life to imaginary critters voiced by his A-list Hollywood buds, including George Clooney, Awkwafina, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Jon Stewart, Steve Carell, and the late Lou Gossett Jr. in a warmly avuncular turn as a supervising teddy bear. And then to make the walls and floors of the retirement home morph and flip as if they're just so many pixels.

At which point, if you're like me, you may start wanting something a little more solid to hold onto — like, say, a plot that holds up, or even that just holds still. This one jumps around as much as the IFs themselves, at first linking them to new kids, then to their now-grown-up original kids, with little logic, and less explanation.

Along the way, some intriguing issues are raised — about wanting to return to childhood, about growing out of childhood, and about dealing with loss.

But mostly the filmmakers detour, decorate and digitize their story rather than telling it, and that doesn't mesh well with the real-world stuff — dad's surgery, for instance, and Bea's wandering all over Brooklyn without her grandma seeming to notice. And yes, I know: IF is a kid-flick, but it still needs grounding. We're in Brooklyn, not Willy Wonkaland.

Also, star voices and digital wizardry notwithstanding, IF's IFs feel generic, especially when they're stealing focus from the live performers. Grandma, for instance. No filmmaker who has actress Fiona Shaw on screen needs special effects.

Krasinski, in fact, clearly knows that. He's crafted a lovely moment where Bea puts a ballet record – the "Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia" — on the turntable, and Grandma stands listening to it, bathed in twilight at a window, with her back to the camera. She's remembering the dancer she was as a child, and as the music rises, her right hand does too ... just so. And in that lovely, unforced gesture, you realize all the other things Krasinski's sweet little kid flick might have been ... IF only.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.