Between “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Little Prince” in style and sensibility, Winsor McCay’s monthly comic-strip serial “Little Nemo in Slumberland” demands an appropriate adaptation for the big screen. Not that it has not been attempted over the years.
Hayao Miyazaki attempted to have an animated version produced at one time. The closest was “Dream One,” a live-action film.) And not that “Constantine” director Francis Lawrence’s grotesque and generally repulsive children’s film counts — or even has much to do with McCay’s inventive early-20th-century comic strip.
Yes, the main character’s name is Nemo, and yes, the majority of the film takes place in the fantasy subconscious region of Slumberland, where gravity and time operate according to completely arbitrary laws.
However, the parallels end there, which may explain why Netflix has not highlighted the connection in its advertising campaign.
“Slumberland” feels less like an adaptation of “Little Nemo” and more like another large, cumbersome modern visual effects film loosely “inspired by” an older piece of well-known intellectual property (à la Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”), which it resembles very regrettably.
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Here’s the proposal: Nemo (in a clever twist, a girl’s name in this version) was reared in a lighthouse by her father, who gives her a dramatic bedtime story before unexpectedly vanishing after the first scene. The accident occurs off-screen and is scarcely addressed before Nemo is packed up and sent to live with her uncomfortable uncle (Chris O’Dowd) in the big city, which she abhors. As Nemo’s new guardian, he sends her to school and struggles to bond to her, leaving Nemo to her increasingly vivid dreams after the death of her father.
The first night in her new home, Nemo’s bed grows spider-like legs, climbs out the window, and brings her back to the lighthouse, where she meets Flip, a self-proclaimed “outlaw” robber in a pink suit and feathered hat. It is a flamboyantly clownish part of the type traditionally played by Johnny Depp, but Jason Momoa has been cast.
This casting may sound like a distant second choice, but it’s actually the best thing about “Slumberland.” Audiences aren’t accustomed to witnessing the “Conan” star’s humorous side, so it’s kind of amusing to watch him don a prosthetic stomach, pastel nails, and pointed teeth in order to portray an impudently boorish dream-breaker. As Nemo, newcomer Marlow Barkley resembles a young Saoirse Ronan, but she is never given the opportunity to demonstrate her range or cope with her character’s more complex emotions.
Instead, “Slumberland” concentrates on delivering kid-friendly adventures. Flip, a recurring character in McCay’s original comics, is searching for a treasure map that will lead him and Nemo, who is bright enough to uncover it, to a cache of pearls that grant wishes.
Screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman make such an uncomfortable job of portraying Dad’s departure in the first place, it’s not surprising that the resolution of that plotline is disappointing.
It is easier for “Slumberland” to conjure complicated dream worlds than to create a satisfying emotional base, which is also true of Lawrence’s previous works.
Akin to a Pixar film (“Monsters Inc.” minus the monsters, presumably), the film offers a very fresh perspective on how dreams may be made and managed: They are all headquartered in a large building where different types of nocturnal activities occupy separate floors.
With the map in hand, Flip and Nemo figure out how to move between them, resulting in a crazy ride as a butterfly-filled wish-fulfillment fantasy feeds into the toilet tank of an art deco executive bathroom.
At times, “Slumberland” resembles a child-friendly version of “Inception,” but Lawrence lacks Christopher Nolan’s advanced logic and world-building vision. This film occasionally dazzles, but Lawrence’s preference for wide views, frenzied action, and an overall unpleasant visual design makes it a chore to watch.
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Nemo is pursued across Slumberland by a smokey, octopus-like nightmare. The film lacks a conventional antagonist, instead including “dream cops” that behave similarly to Agent Smith in the “Matrix” films, as well as a sarcastic, Agent Smith-like nightmare. It’s unfortunate, given that McCay’s “Little Nemo” comics pioneered such a charming style, but everything is so garish and haphazardly structured.
The carefully created end credits—beautiful CG scenes meant to seem like cut-paper dioramas—rub it in, indicating that Nemo could have been on a multitude of other, more exciting adventures instead.
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is Slumberland a Scary Film?
What Parents Should Know Slumberland is an action-packed adventure picture in which people, including a young boy named Nemo (Marlow Barkley), encounter grave peril.
Is Slumberland a Good Movie?
Slumberland provides a magnificent voyage that entertains and enthralls while taking a serious and heartfelt approach to its themes of loss, trauma, and moving on.