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Movie Review: ‘IF,’ imperfect but charming, may have us all checking under beds for our old friends

How do you make a kid’s movie that appeals not only to the kids, but the adults sitting next to them? Most movies try to achieve this by throwing in a layer of wink-wink pop culture references that’ll earn a few knowing laughs from parents but fly ni
This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Cailey Fleming, left, and Ryan Reynolds in a scene from "IF." (Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures via AP)

How do you make a kid’s movie that appeals not only to the kids, but the adults sitting next to them? Most movies try to achieve this by throwing in a layer of wink-wink pop culture references that’ll earn a few knowing laughs from parents but fly nicely over the heads of the young ones.

So let’s credit John Krasinski for not taking the easy way out. Writing and directing (and acting in, and producing) his new kid’s movie, “IF,” Krasinski is doing his darndest to craft a story that works organically no matter the age, with universal themes — imagination, fear, memory — that just hit different depending on who you are.

Or maybe sometimes, they hit the same — because Krasinski, who wanted to make a movie his kids could watch (unlike his “Quiet Place” thrillers), is also telling us that sometimes, we adults are more connected to our childhood minds than we think. A brief late scene that actually doesn’t include children at all is one of the most moving moments of the film – but I guess I would say that, being an adult and all.

There’s only one conundrum: “IF,” a story about imaginary friends (get it?) that blends live action with digital creatures and some wonderful visual effects (and cinematography by Janusz Kaminski), has almost too many riches at its disposal. And we’re not even talking about the Who’s Who of Hollywood figures voicing whimsical creatures: Steve Carell, Matt Damon, Bradley Cooper, Jon Stewart, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Maya Rudolph, Emily Blunt, Sam Rockwell, and the late Louis Gosset Jr. are just a few who join live stars Ryan Reynolds and Cailey Fleming. Imagining a table read makes the head spin.

The issue is simply that with all the artistic resources and refreshing ideas here, there’s a fuzziness to the storytelling itself. Just who is actually doing what and why they’re doing it — what are the actual mechanics of this half-human, half-digital world? — occasionally gets lost in the razzle-dazzle.

But, still, everything looks so darned lovely, starting with the pretty, brownstone-lined streets of Brooklyn Heights in New York City, where our story is chiefly set. We begin in flashback, with happy scenes of main character Bea as a little girl, playing with her funloving parents (Krasinski and Catharine Daddario). But soon we’re sensing Mom may be sick — she's wearing telltale headscarves and hats — and it becomes clear what’s happening.

Bea is 12 when she arrives with a suitcase at her grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment, filled with her old paint sets and toys. Grandma (Fiona Shaw, in a deeply warm performance) offers the art supplies, but Bea tells her: “I don’t really do that anymore.”

She says something similar to her father, visiting him in the hospital (it takes a few minutes to figure out that they've come to New York, from wherever they live, so Dad can have some sort of heart surgery.) He tells Bea he's not sick, just broken, and needs to be fixed. Hoping to keep her sense of fun alive, he jokes around, but she says sternly: “Life doesn’t always have to be fun.”

And then the creatures start appearing, visible only to Bea.

We first meet a huge roly-poly bundle of purple fur called “Blue” (Carell.) Yes, we said he was purple. The kid who named him was color-blind. These, we soon understand, are IFs —imaginary friends — who’ve been cut loose, no longer needed. There’s also a graceful butterfly called Blossom who resembles Betty Boop (Waller-Bridge). A winsome unicorn (Blunt). A smooth-voiced elderly teddy bear (Gossett Jr., in a sweet turn.) We’ll meet many more.

Supervising all of them is Cal (Ryan Reynolds.) An ornery type, at least to begin with, he's feeling rather overworked, trying to find new kids for these IFs. But now that Bea has found Cal living atop her grandmother’s apartment building, she’s the chosen helper.

The pair — Reynolds and the sweetly serious Fleming have a winning chemistry — head to Coney Island on the subway, where Cal shows Bea the IF “retirement home.” This is, hands down, the most delightful part of the movie. Filmed at an actual former retirement residence, the scene has the look down pat: generic wall-to-wall carpeting, activity rooms for CG-creature group therapy sessions, the nail salon. And then the nonagenarian teddy bear gives Bea a key bit of advice: all she need do is use her imagination to transform the place. And she does, introducing everything from a spiffy new floor to a swimming pool with Esther Williams-style dancers to a rock concert with Tina Turner.

The movie moves on to Bea’s matchmaking efforts. A tough nut to crack is Benjamin (Alan Kim), an adorable boy in the hospital who favors screens and seems to have trouble charging his own imagination (spoiler alert: that’ll get fixed).

There are segments here that feel like they go on far too long, particularly when Bea, Cal and Blue track down Blue’s now-adult “kid” (Bobby Moynihan of “Saturday Night Live”), now nervously preparing for a professional presentation.

Still, the idea that adults could still make use of their old “IFs” at difficult times — and, to broaden the thought, summon their dormant sense of whimsy, as a closing scene captures nicely — is a worthwhile one. And by movie’s end, one can imagine more than one adult in the multiplex running home, checking under the bed, hoping to find a trusted old friend.

“IF,” a Paramount release, has been rated PG by the Motion Picture Association “for thematic elements and mild language.” Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press