If review: This family film about imaginary friends is often touching, often infuriating

Nobody is going to confuse the middle-ranking If with ET, but the same generosity of spirit and respect for childhood is clear in both

If
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Director: John Krasinski
Cert: PG
Starring: Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, John Krasinski, Fiona Shaw, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Louis Gossett jnr, Steve Carell
Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins

One imagines that John Krasinski could make pretty much what he liked after the success of the first two Quiet Place films. As it happens, he has chosen to do one for the kids. Or for the family. Even if the frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński were not listed as cinematographer, the influence of that film-maker would be unmistakable.

Nobody is going to confuse the middle-ranking If with ET (for all the similarity of their titles), but the same generosity of spirit and respect for childhood is apparent in both. What’s missing here is confidence in the leap towards the supernatural. It can’t be right that we too often wish to be taken back to the film’s real world.

That core reality concerns young Bea’s traumas as she waits for her father to undergo heart surgery. Her mother’s death has already alerted her to mortal truths. So it is no surprise that she fears the worst. Another world opens up when, staying with her grandmother in Brooklyn Heights, New York, she encounters a route into parallel realities. On reflection, there is as much here of classic English children’s literature – Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden for one – as there is of Spielberg’s suburban tales.

Cailey Fleming, who played teeny Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is uncannily strong as young Bea. (If a child actor is anything other than brilliant these days one is tempted to ask for a refund.)

Krasinski is charming as a dad who seems more worried by the stresses on Bea than he is about the heart procedure itself. The great Fiona Shaw, too often misused in studio pictures, makes the most of a kindly but fun grandma who always longed to be a dancer. Shot in nostalgic chocolatey light by Kamiński, that section of the story yearns for a film all its own.

But that’s not what If is about. Or, rather, that is not what most of If is about. The title could, you see, also be pronounced as the initials for “imaginary friend”. It transpires that the administrators of the IF system work from an apparently abandoned apartment upstairs from Bea’s granny.

There they plan to foster various supernatural beings – huge, squashy things; weird insecty things; friendly alligator things – with children appropriately aligned to those tastes. They also spend much time caring for IFs whose former companions have put away childish things. One day your kid is mucking round in the sandpit. The next he is trying to lure an inappropriate crush to the back of the bicycle shed.

Ryan Reynolds, as the IF authority figure, tries hard but is stuck with too much administrative jargon to properly shine

You know how it is. Of course you do. Because that high concept shares much of its emotional power with the one that drove the Toy Story movies: the odd-looking being is let down by the inevitable workings of time on blameless kids. The main issue here is the film-makers’ failure to invest the toys – sorry, the imaginary friends – with any charm. The voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge does little to make her half-human, half-butterfly thing seem less eerie than that description suggests. Steve Carell voices a huge blue creature that bears too many traces of Monsters, Inc.

A groaning celebrity voice cast that includes Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Sam Rockwell and Jon Stewart does little better with robots, octopuses, dogs and mice. Ryan Reynolds, as the IF authority figure, tries hard but is stuck with too much administrative jargon to properly shine. A central musical sequence isn’t good enough to justify its irrelevance to the rest of the plot. And so on.

For all that, If comes together nicely in a moving denouement that almost makes sense of the fantastic clutter. Often touching. Often infuriating.

If is in cinemas from Friday, May 17th

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