'Imaginary' review: How does this creepy teddy bear stand up to M3GAN?

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Chauncey the Bear is the creepy toy at the center of

There can be a very thin line between cute and creepy. Just look at Chucky, M3GAN, or the Cabbage Patch Kids. Not all of these are killer toys, but all of them could be believably beloved by children while giving grown-ups the heebie-jeebies. Coming to join their perturbing plaything ranks is Chauncey Bear in Imaginary. 

Plus, like Blumhouse's other recent killer toy offerings, M3GAN and Five Nights at Freddy's, Imaginary is PG-13, allowing budding horror fans to get in on the freaky fun. 

What's Imaginary about? 

DeWanda Wise stars as a struggling stepmom in "Imaginary."
DeWanda Wise stars as a struggling stepmom in "Imaginary." Credit: Lionsgate

Written by a quartet of scribes — Greg Erb, Bryce McGuire, Jason Oremland, and director Jeff Wadlow — the plot line to Imaginary is a bit convoluted. Sure, at its creepy core, it's the tale of a girl and the teddy bear who might just kill her. But the framing has flourishes, maybe too many. 

DeWanda Wise, who is the best part of bad movies Poolman and Jurassic World Dominion, stars as Jessica, a celebrated childrens' book author tackling a new challenge: stepmom. Moving into her childhood home with her husband, Max (Tom Payne), his surly teen daughter, Taylor (Taegen Burns), and his sugary youngest, Alice (Pyper Braun), Wise has the chance to be the mother she never had. But she must also face the dark secrets of a past she's long forgotten. (Also, she'll deal with her musician husband going on tour, her elderly father suffering from some form of dementia, a nosy neighbor, and finding inspiration for her next book.)

All of those threads will tie back to Alice's new imaginary friend, Chauncey Bear, who loves scavenger hunts, is always hungry, and demands obedience. As Jessica begins to realize something is definitely wrong in her home not-so-sweet home, she must bond with her daughters to conquer a ravenous evil. 

Imaginary delivers satisfying scares. 

Wadlow, who's helmed such twisted slashers as Cry Wolf, Truth or Dare, and Fantasy Island, isn't breaking new ground with Imaginary. Scare setups rely on the old classics, like an out-of-focus figure lurking in the background of a dark basement. A creepy toy appears out of nowhere and moves inexplicably. But these oldies are still goodies, executed with terrific timing. So, a bump in the night leads to our horror heroine peeking under the bed for a jolting jump scare. 

Plot-wise, there are similarities with Mama, the Andy Muschietti horror treat, where a reluctant foster mom must protect two young girls from a mysterious, vicious force. But Imaginary is less haunting and more playful in its approach, inviting in younger audiences exploring their personal fear factors.

Creepy kid stuff makes its way in as Alice is influenced by Chauncey, leading to tense scenes of therapy and slight bloodshed. But much of the violence is offscreen or implied — a scream there, a pool of blood there. The PG-13 rating keeps gore at bay. Still, the creatures make this feature frightful fun. 

The design of the bear is smart; it's cuddly but ratty-looking, and it's features sometimes contort slightly to suggest something sinister at play. But in nightmares and a labyrinthian climax, bigger badder beasties come out. And while a grown-up's eye might see a man in a terrific costume (perhaps with some CGI enhancements), it's still delightfully devilish. Unnatural silhouettes, gaping maws, protruding claws, and hissing warnings paired with kids' fare like a music box and a twisted scavenger hunt offer a spooky twist on playtime. 

DeWanda Wise and Pyper Braun make Imaginary work. 

Pyper Braun and Chauncey the Bear face off in "Imaginary."
Pyper Braun and Chauncey the Bear face off in "Imaginary." Credit: Lionsgate

The plotline gets cluttered with characters who feel more like plot points than people. A cocky teen boy shows up to be awful, then terrified. The requisite husband is sidelined comically early, so he'll be no help to the girls or hindrance to the plot moving along. Even a creepy neighbor, played by Carrie's Betty Buckley, feels awkwardly wedged in, dampening the surprise of her third-act involvement. 

Despite the clunky story, Wise and Braun ground their characters, making the movie undeniably compelling. (To her credit, Burns as the older daughter is earnest. But, saddled with lots of clichéd dialogue dripping in teen angst, her character is wincingly one-note.) Wise weaves her way through exposition dumps to create heartfelt emotion, whether Jessica is hit by a shock from her past or a crisis in her present. In scenes where she fears her own failure, the very real terror of being a parent brings chills. But Braun is the show stealer. 

As Alice, Braun is chipper and cheerful, with rosy cheeks and a smile that won't be denied whatever it requests (a paintbrush? A toy? Some payback?). But — as seen in the trailers — when Chauncey talks, he talks with her voice. There, Braun spits out the kind of scary voice you might expect from a kid, low and grumbly. Enhanced with audio effects, it becomes an ungodly echo that bellows horrid things, making for a tantrum that is terrifyingly next-level.

Overall, Imaginary is overstuffed with plot points, constructing not only a story of a fractured family but also a growing lore clearly intended to spark a new franchise that can appeal to a broad demographic. And yes, the PG-13 rating means Imaginary is fairly soft for horror. Its scares are more spooky than harrowing. However, Wadlow has a solid sense of timing his tension. Wise grounds the emotional stakes, while Braun gives us a child to worry over and a monster to shiver over. So, while a bit unwieldy, Imaginary is a playfully deranged movie that's sure to be a hit at slumber parties. But grown-ups can enjoy its spirited scares, too. 

Imaginary opens in theaters March 8. 

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