Opinion: ‘IF’ is a huge missed opportunity

Editor’s Note: Roy Schwartz is a pop culture historian and critic. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and Facebook and at royschwartz.com. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

Imagination has been the theme of several films of late, ranging from “Imaginary,” released in March, a horror movie about a children’s book author whose childhood stuffed teddy/imaginary friend comes to life to haunt her, to “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” coming out in August, a PG-rated comedy based on the classic children’s book, where Harold grows up and draws himself out of the book and into the real world.

Roy Schwartz - courtesy of Roy Schwartz
Roy Schwartz - courtesy of Roy Schwartz

The vogue is understandable. The world, after all, feels like it’s on fire. (Though that, too, is mostly a figment of our imagination.) Escapism offers comfort. That’s not a criticism — escapism isn’t a bad thing.

We tend to think of escapism as a retreat or avoidance of real life, and that’s perfectly fine. We all need a break sometimes. But escapist fictions — sci-fi, fantasy or any other exercise of the imagination — are also places of reflection. They’re a sidestep from the stifling limitations of the real world into allegorical worlds, where we’re free to test new perspectives and new truths, about the world as well as about ourselves. Imagination gives us better clarity of reality.

The latest in the growing mini-canon of imagination films, “IF” is a new family-friendly fantasy comedy from John Krasinski, who cowrote, coproduced, directed and costars in the movie. It’s about Bea (Cailey Fleming), a young girl who, just as she’s about to transition from childhood to adolescence, discovers that she can see children’s imaginary friends, or IFs.

IFs are abandoned by their kids as they grow older, and Bea decides to match them with new ones, with the help of her mysterious upstairs neighbor (Ryan Reynolds), who can also see them.

Ryan Reynolds (Cal), Cailey Fleming (Bea), Steve Carell (Blue) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom) in "IF." - Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Ryan Reynolds (Cal), Cailey Fleming (Bea), Steve Carell (Blue) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom) in "IF." - Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The movie is a sincere ode to the magic of childhood and to the power of imagination to shape our lives and fill them with joy. But it undermines that very premise by being surprisingly unimaginative in its execution. It aims for a Spielbergian sense of wonder (it’s probably not a coincidence that the cinematographer is longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński), but it just feels like pastiche.

The story and its fantasy rules are unclear, and not in a way that invites us to fill in the gaps with our imagination. It’s just confusing. At points it also meanders lethargically, which will likely bore younger viewers. In a movie like this, that’s a sin.

The most disappointing thing is the IFs themselves. They’re voiced by a who’s who of celebrities, but that’s not enough to make up for them being mostly unoriginal and uninteresting, in both design and personality. Even the main one, Blue (Steve Carell), is a cliché — a lovable furry dimwitted oaf.

Fleming is by far the most engaging and charming thing in the film, and it’s not hard to imagine her becoming a movie star. To its credit, the movie also has some genuinely touching moments, even if they don’t come together as a whole. Ultimately, though, it’s an irony; its theme is the power of imagination, but the film itself is a showcase for the failure of imagination when it’s inhibited.

Still, “IF” is a thematic exploration of the power of imagination, encouraging us to consider it ourselves. And it comes at a pivotal time for human beings to be thinking — and feeling — about imagination in our own lives.

Imagination isn’t always a way to escape; it’s also a powerful engine of empathy. It lets us journey to other places and times, and to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes. It frees us from our own consciousness. And when we get back, we’re no longer the same. Once our minds stretch, they don’t shrink back. And that enables us to better understand someone else’s lived reality.

Imagination is likewise how we create theology, mythology, national ethos, culture and, at the smallest unit, a concept of ourselves. We understand the world through the constructs of our mind. It’s what poet Muriel Rukeyser meant when she wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

We’re made up of imagination, everything but our physical body. Our personality, our loves, hates, fears, desires, are all in our imagination. And yet they feel the most real to us.

Perhaps the most important of these, love, is nothing if not an act of imagination. We assign the highest meaning and value to something intangible, unmeasurable, abstract, unreal — yet the very act of assigning it makes it real. (Science even shows that daydreaming about our loved ones, effectively a double layer of imagining, increases our sense of love and happiness.)

Imagination is crucial to child development, including social conditioning (our social persona, after all, is how we imagine ourselves, how others imagine us and how we imagine that others imagine us). Imagination can help attenuate anxiety, fear and other negative emotions and reactions. It’s as important in business as it is in the arts, as any deal negotiator can tell you.

It’s also a key component of critical thinking, a skill that, in a world increasingly shaped by algorithms, bots and other manipulations, is more important than ever. Imagination is what powers our development, creativity, innovation, problem-solving and other skills.

Imagination isn’t enough, obviously. The creative people at Disney, who create everything from theme park animatronics to merchandise, are called “imagineers” (a term popularized but not coined by Walt Disney), because they combine two separate but equally important, and codependent, skills: imagining what could be, and then engineering it into existence.

But, as Albert Einstein famously wrote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” He actually meant two things by this. In context, he was talking about experimentation, pointing out that a scientific hypothesis is, for all intents and purposes, imagination. But what he meant more broadly is that whatever we can imagine, we can achieve, and we can become. We live in the world we first imagine.

In this, history’s most famous scientist was actually echoing the Bible. Genesis opens with the story of creation, where God repeatedly says “let there be,” then creates, and then there is — first it’s imagination, then it’s reality.

“IF” makes a similar point, even if incoherently. Children know intuitively that the world of their imagination is no less real, and in fact often makes much more sense, than the grownup world. They imagine, and they create.

But somewhere between childhood and adulthood we lose that innate wisdom, along with the simple joy it brings. The key to getting some of it back is in reconnecting with our inner child. It’s a hackneyed message, and “IF” doesn’t add anything new to it, but it’s also a simple truth.

When asked about his sculpting, Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” He simply followed what he saw in his mind’s eye. When it comes to imagination, we’re the angel trapped in the marble. Our power of imagination is limitless. It’s how we create, how we understand, how we progress, how we hope. Its only limit is us. We should always have the courage to break free.

Just imagine.

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