From a social-cognitive perspective, there may be no friend in one's childhood as significant as an imaginary friend. We might best remember the friend who rode bikes with us, built sandcastles with us, or we told secrets to in treehouses. But it's that friend we rarely remember later in life who actually helped us to expand our creativity, develop emotional understanding, expand our resiliency and evolve our coping mechanisms. Imaginary friends may well just account for who we become later in life.
Thus they should also be considered very important characters in film. In many movies the entirety of the plot revolves around an imaginary character, while in others they are a hinted-at element. These friends, however, almost always represent another side of ourselves.
The imaginary friend will always intrigue us as something we doubt, yet can't help but believe in. So to pay them tribute we've rounded up a few of the best imaginary friends found in films. I've chosen not to count proven alternate personalities, where the character was really a version of themselves or someone else. Also not included are ghosts ascribed to be imaginary friends, usually by adamant and equally creepy children (Toby from Paranormal Activity 3), an oft-used horror trope.
So believe once again in the power of friendship, real or imagined.
Harvey — Harvey (1950)
Harvey is a remarkable imaginary friend for a number of reasons. For one, he appears to an adult, Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart), instead of to a child. Elwood describes Harvey very specifically as a 6 foot, 3.5 inch rabbit who can stop time. The best part of the film is the message that being "normal" isn't always the best way to be. If the weirdest thing about you is you have a great friend who others can't see, well, then you're doing just fine.
Tony — The Shining (1980)
Tony is definitely a creepy sort of imaginary friend, but that's only because his best bud Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) likes to wave his pointer finger when Tony is talking and use a raspy, scary voice to represent him. According to Danny, Tony lives in the back of his mouth and, despite his spooky manifestation, he's actually a very good friend. When Danny deals with some horrifying images, Tony is there to remind him how to use his own mind in order to make those images disappear. He's always there to give Danny rationality in a world of chaos, though I did always wonder how Danny avoided swallowing Tony.
Drop Dead Fred — Drop Dead Fred (1991)
Fred (Rik Mayall), more formally known as Drop Dead Fred, is also an imaginary friend appearing to an adult. In the film he returns after many years to visit his friend Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates), who is having a tough time at being an adult. Though Fred tends to do a fair amount of damage, constantly getting Elizabeth into trouble, he helps her be bold in a time when she needs to remember who she is.
Charles — A Beautiful Mind (2001)
This one is a bit spoilery, but considering this film is based on a true story, I don't feel quite so bad spoiling it. Charles (Paul Bettany) is best friend and college roommate to genius John Nash (Russell Crowe). He forces socially awkward John to get out of his room from time to time, pushes his brain to imagine further possibilities for what he can achieve, and helps protect him when he spirals into paranoia later in life. Theirs is a friendship for the ages, made even more special because Charles comes from John's own genius brain.
Gusteau — Ratatouille (2007)
That a rat would have an imaginary friend is a funny enough premise, but that that imaginary friend is a deceased human chef is even more hilarious. Yet this is the case in Ratatouille, in which Remy the rat (Patton Oswalt) dreams of a life where he can concoct delicious food and live out his idol Gusteau's motto that "anyone can cook." Gusteau (Brad Garrett) appears to Remy when he most needs motivation to forget the barriers facing him (you know, being a rat in a human world for one) and just cook.
Elvis — True Romance (1993)
Here's an imaginary friend based on a real person, but who says our imaginations can't be spurred on by reality? There are about a billion versions of Elvis in this world anyway. This particularly version of the King isn't quite as cuddly as some of these other imaginary friends, however. In True Romance, Elvis (Val Kilmer) is the inner voice of destruction to Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), egging him on to kill when killing needs to be done. He's not evil per se, just helpful — and always with the voice of a Southern angel — in making those hard and fast decisions that one maybe ought to spend a bit more time on.
Captain Excellent — Paper Man (2009)
Before he'd go on to play other superheroes (Green Lantern and Deadpool), Ryan Reynolds was the imaginary superhero friend, Captain Excellent, to Jeff Daniels' failed writer Richard Dunn in Paper Man. Richard retreats to a small coastal town to try to get past his writer's block. With him goes Captain Excellent, always the voice of caution to Richard and his impulsive ways. Captain Excellent represents everything Richard is holding on to in an effort to keep from facing maturity.
Jack Flack — Cloak & Dagger (1984)
An underseen film and excellent imaginary friend in the genre, Cloak & Dagger is a spy flick starring Henry Thomas as Davey, a boy who's lost his mother and can't connect with his father, and so he immerses himself in an imaginary world of espionage. Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman) is the star of Davey's favorite spy game and when the boy stumbles across an actual crime, it's an imaginary Flack who comes to help him face foes and real life.
Frank — Donnie Darko (2001)
So Frank is by far the most frightening of imaginary friends on this list. He's also the most mysterious in his usefulness to Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is coping with high school, a new girlfriend, and a sense of the end of the world. In fact, it's Frank who fills Donnie in on when exactly the end of the world will be. Frank is also moderately useful in his strange way of "leading" Donnie to places he needs him to be. Ultimately, Frank's informational purpose helps Donnie literally change the future.
Bogus — Bogus (1996)
Bogus is your straight-up imaginary-friend-needed-to-help-a-kid-cope kind of story. Of course the kid in need here is Haley Joel Osment at peak cuteness, and the imaginary friend is Gérard Depardieu at peak French charming. In this tale Osment plays Albert, who is orphaned and sent to live with his godmother Harriet (Whoopi Goldberg). Bogus comes to life just as Albert has to adjust to living with a mother-figure who never imagined herself to be a mother. Much to her surprise, Harriet also begins to see Bogus. Cutesy hilarity ensues. Truly a heartwarming side dish to the imaginary friend meal.
There are plenty more friends where these came from. A movie is, after all, mostly a figment of someone's imagination.
Does this jog your memory of a favorite imaginary friend or do you wish to mention an imaginary-film friend not covered here? Leave a comment!