We often hear the phrase “the power of imagination” tossed around, but what does it mean, really? Does imagination actually have a power, a real force that can affect us and others? Are our dreams mere flights of fancy, or can they truly be transformative for the world around us? These are the questions addressed in director Eric Leiser’s feature debut Imagination, which uses animation and dreamlike imagery to explore just how powerful imagination can be.
Meet a pair of twins with a unique connection. Sarah (Jessi Haddad) is blind, and Anna (Nikki Haddad) has Asperger’s Syndrome, which causes her to have an overactive imagination, often causing her to see things that aren’t there. While the girls’ mother (Courtney Sanford) and father (Travis Poelle) fret over how to reach them, a caring psychiatrist (Ed K. Gildersleeve, The Greatest Story of All Time) starts believing there might be more to these girls than science can explain.
The appropriately-titled Imagination is a fascinating watch. Leiser, who has an animation background, employs every animation style he knows throughout the film, creating one of the most visually rich movies of recent years. A street full of stop-motion animated characters move about to the tunes of a quirky stop-motion band. An earthquake is represented as rocks rapidly disappearing one-by-one from stone walls and streets. As an otherworldly version of the girls wanders through a desert, time-lapse clouds whiz by overhead. Like an actual dream, you’re never sure where this movie will take you next.
That being said, there’s a lot of ambiguity as far as the story is concerned. Much of what happens is seen, so to speak, through the two girls. One cannot see, and one sees a world that is not really there. The animated scenes seem to suggest that the two girls become a single individual when exploring their “visions.” Then, inside their shared dream world, they go in search of a white fawn, which they believe will cure them, or provide happiness of some sort. Meanwhile, the parents and the psychiatrist worry about what to do with the girls. Then, when tragedy strikes, the girls retreat farther into their fantasies. The plot would seem to unravel even more at this point, as the movie rushes headfirst into its open-to-interpretation ending.
What is the “message” of the movie? Hard to say. The twins manage to survive great adversity by retreating into the imagination. This could be a statement about the healing power of the imagination, but I’m sure most experts would agree that withdrawing into yourself in not the proper way to deal with tragedy. Instead, I feel the filmmakers have a more abstract message in mind. The disc’s bonus features reveal that Leiser and his co-writer/brother Jeffrey are both devoutly spiritual, so the film’s message instead has to do with how there is more to life than what science can explain. Leiser’s argument, it seems, is that we should all embrace the unseen around us, by exercising our faith.
If this movie were dark and freaky, it’d instantly be the next big “midnight movie” favorite. Instead, because it’s spiritual and uplifting, the types of viewers who enjoy movies with crazy, psychedelic dream sequences might miss it. Likewise, viewers seeking a bright, life-affirming film might be turned off by the strangeness and ambiguity in the animation. I’d like to suggest that both groups give the movie a try. The loose ruminations on how there might be more to life than what we can see and touch will make for nice discussion fodder for the spiritual set, and the twisted strangeness of the imagery will surely be enjoyed by movie geeks who love experimental animation and cinematography.
Many young and first-time filmmakers often fall in love with certain great-looking shots, and then put them on screen for longer than necessary. Leiser does that here, repeating certain pieces of animation a few times too many, or letting the camera linger on nice imagery for a little too long. For example, the psychiatrist flashes back to two young boys he once helped, who had similar disabilities as the twins. Dreamlike footage of the boys playing in a park plays, which is all well and good, except that this footage repeats over and over. Stretches of movie like this will likely have some viewers shouting “Get on with it!” at the screen.
Although there are many amazing visuals throughout this film, the picture quality on this DVD could be much better. It’s grainy throughout, there are several scratches to be seen, and dark scenes are especially hazy. The stereo sound fares better, with Jeffrey Leiser’s score sounding very nice. The making-of featurette goes over the origin of the story, and some of the many challenges that the low-budget production had. The animation featurette shows just how experimental and on-the-fly it was created. Of particular interest is the use of a life-size stop-motion armature, as opposed to the usual tiny ones used by most animators. The Q&A was filmed at a screening for the film and offers more information about the movie’s creation. From there, the disc also includes an isolated score track, a photo gallery, and a text-only message from the director, thanking everyone for their support of the film.
An intriguing, abstract story coupled with amazing animation, that’s what’s in store from Imagination. If that sounds like your sort of thing, then give it a try.