‘IF’ Review: John Krasinski’s Ryan Reynolds-Starring Children’s Tale Has a Classical Look, but Messy World-Building (2024)

John Krasinski proudly makes movies for and about the whole family. Maybe his vastly successful “A Quiet Place” franchise, with all its screechy monsters, is too much for youngsters to handle. But there’s still an undeniable, innocent loveliness to those movies, with warm moments that lean closely into the bonds of an adoring family that only grow stronger in the face of danger and despair.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that Krasinski’s latest sets its sights on a tale that this time is genuinely for kids, and not just their parents. There are no bloodthirsty brutes in the live action-animation hybrid “IF,” a sweetly old-fashioned yet messily conjured children’s tale that sadly falls short of its thematic ambitions. Instead, it has oddly endearing creatures that represent a child’s wild imagination, overeager to show up and save the day for the people who envisioned them once upon a time, however old they might be right now.

The film’s title thus doesn’t only insinuate the “what ifs” of life (as one character all too superfluously explains), but is also short for “Imaginary Friend.” You know them: Little Danny in “The Shining” had one named Tony. And homesick Riley in “Inside Out” had one named Bing Bong. According to the universe of “IF,” which asks you to abandon all your real-world conventional wisdom, almost every single child has an IF that they’ve created as a companion or coping mechanism in the face of anxieties they aren’t mature enough to navigate. The trouble is, kids grow up, discarding those IFs like the sad, attic-bound toys of the “Toy Story” franchise. But these forgotten friends are desperate to be needed again, for reasons “IF” doesn’t bother exploring deeply enough.

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Whisking us into this make-believe world, where everyone seems to live in a fabulous Brooklyn brownstone, is 12-year-old Bea (a terrific Cailey Fleming), a precocious New Yorker who lost her mom at a young age and lives with her single dad (Krasinski), who can’t help but be a jokester even in the gloomiest moments. After a quick glance at her once-happy life with both her parents still alive — a sequence directed by Krasinski like a timeless storybook — we follow Bea as she moves in with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw) in the same neighborhood, after her dad falls ill with a mysterious condition (conscientiously never spelled out) and checks into a hospital. It is then when a burdened Bea, still grieving her mom, meets Ryan Reynolds’ Cal and his animated friends: the massive and very purple Blue (Steve Carell) and Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who looks like a vintage Betty Boop rendering. The trio are on a mission — Blue and Blossom to match themselves with a new kid, and Cal, to unite all IFs with a child in need.

Naturally, Bea joins them too and finds herself at a Coney Island retirement community for all discarded IFs that only she can see. (This superpower of hers feels easier to accept than a 12-year-old kid taking the subway all over New York City, without the knowledge of her grandmother and father.) And once at the center, we realize we are witnessing perhaps the most star-studded ensemble cast of the year, with the IFs voiced by the likes of Louis Gossett Jr., Matt Damon, Maya Rudolph, Emily Blunt, Bradley Cooper, Jon Stewart, Sam Rockwell, Awkwafina, George Clooney and more.(There appears to be no shortage of A-listers who want to have some fun with Krasinski.)

This remarkable lineup of actors aside, the animated IFs never quite impress, enlighten or entertain us enough, even when they launch into an adorable song-and-dance number. Elsewhere, Bea’s regular trips to the hospital to visit his spirited dad (during which we get to meet Alan Kim’s adorable Benjamin) always feel like an uncomfortable afterthought. Krasinski’s concept borrows generously from Pixar films like “Monsters Inc.,” but is so chaotic and half-considered that you don’t feel as inspired as you should be, making it hard to submit to the film’s alternate reality.

The film asks its audience to use unreasonable sums of imagination to decipher why on earth, for instance, a child’s imaginary friend would be an ice-cube in a half-full water glass (Cooper), or an impulsive spy-like figure (Christopher Meloni) or a giant gummy bear (Amy Schumer), next to some of the more credible ones like a teddy bear or a unicorn. Not to mention Bea’s very own (and heavily signposted) IF — once it’s finally revealed, it’s a particular head-scratcher. It’s almost as if some imaginary figures were conceived with little consideration for their narrative purpose, and baked into the script just because they felt cool as ideas. Like many of the film’s attempts at humor, the animated characters fall flat, in desperate need of some coherent world-building.

That’s too bad, because “IF” does have a classical look and feel to its visuals, an old-school and big-hearted quality sorely missed in cinema aimed at younger viewers these days. Everything from the magical lens of frequent Steven Spielberg DP Janusz Kamiński to Jess Gonchor’s opulent production design and Michael Giacchino’s disarmingly melancholic score beg for a film with as much writerly finesse to rise to the occasion. If only.

‘IF’ Review: John Krasinski’s Ryan Reynolds-Starring Children’s Tale Has a Classical Look, but Messy World-Building (2024)


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