In the early years of the 20th century, a long-running newspaper comic strip followed the adventures of Little Nemo in Slumberland: Each strip recounted a dream that begins with grandeur but quickly grows strange, until our boy hero awakens abruptly, realizing he shouldn’t have eaten so much right before bedtime. Each installment was a full page, playfully composed and dazzlingly colored, that cartoonist Winsor McCay filled with imagination and charm. It was a masterpiece. (And excellent reprints, though expensive, aren’t hard to find.)
Francis Lawrence’s Slumberland borrows its title and hero’s name from this strip (though this Nemo’s a girl, and older than her namesake), as well as the idea of traveling through dreams that get dangerous. For one of the film’s posters, Netflix goes further, taking visual themes and typography from the comic, bolstering early reports that the film was an adaptation. Why would they go to such trouble to attract the only viewers likely to hate (or, really, to have any strong reaction to) this movie?
The Bottom Line
A genial adaptation that shouldn’t be confused with the source material.
Take heed, fans of McCay and classic comics: Slumberland has nearly nothing to do with the thing you love. Either avoid it entirely or go in with your eyes open. But do not, under any circumstances, sit in the living room groaning every few minutes, complaining to the kids on the sofa how unimaginative this movie is compared to the comic.
Marlow Barkley (TV’s Single Parents) stars as the devoted daughter of a widowed lighthouse keeper (Kyle Chandler). When her dad dies trying to help a stranded boat, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never met, Chris O’Dowd’s Phillip. This is all boilerplate: Philip, a total square who owns a doorknob company (can you believe!?), has no idea how to care for a kid; he seems to think that getting her enrolled in a fancy school is 90% of the job. (O’Dowd works to quash his charisma, as well as his Irish accent, for the role. He’s more successful with the former than the latter.)
Then, during a bad night’s sleep at Phillip’s sleek apartment, Nemo’s four-poster bed creaks up onto its lengthening legs (an enjoyable gag, and one of very few clear links to the comic) and walks her into a strange new world of dreams.
She soon meets Flip (Jason Momoa), a huge man with fangs, twitching doe ears and the horns of a ram. (Even with those distractions, his Trish Summerville-designed outfits earn our attention.) Nemo knows Flip from her father’s stories of his “outlaw” youth: They were best friends as kids, but somehow Flip got stuck in the unconscious realm. Having lived with his own bad-boy mythology for several decades, he’s a bit much: Momoa’s version of loose-cannon comedic quirk seems to owe a debt to Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice. But he tries to be a team player, enlisting the kid in the usual quest: perilous travel, magic pearls, nightmares that chase you when they smell your fear.
Thankfully, this familiar mission takes our heroes to some diverting places. There’s a map of secret doors leading from one person’s dreams to the next, sending us on a whimsical daisy chain: we might begin in a Cuban ballroom where all the dancers are made of thousands of butterflies, then slip into a car chase where a monster truck is driven by a schoolboy whose duck’s-ass haircut is so big he might topple under its weight.
These lively sequences, which play like Inception for primary-schoolers, let Lawrence and his crafts teams create many bright and colorful worlds, some so sweetened by digital effects you might pray for a single unmanipulated vista as a palate cleanser. What you get instead is the dreary gleam of Phillip’s apartment, where we’re reminded of all the real-life stuff (grief, abandonment, conformity) the movie thinks Nemo needs to digest in order to grow up.
Never mind that Winsor McCay’s comic was almost as anti-personal-growth as Seinfeld famously was: The strip could only continue if Nemo kept ignoring his mother’s advice about pre-bed snacking and had all the dreams that indigestion brings. That was over a century ago, when kids were expected to work a lot more things out on their own. For all the surface wildness of Lawrence’s Slumberland, it’s about as rule-following a family pic as you can find.