Principal Cast : Jason Mamoa, Marlow Barkley, Chris D’Silva, Chris O’Dowd, Kyle Chandler, Weruche Opia, India de Beaufort.
Synopsis: A young girl discovers a secret map to the dreamworld of Slumberland, and with the help of an eccentric outlaw, she traverses dreams and flees nightmares, with the hope that she will be able to see her late father again.
Over a century since its creation, Winsor McCay’s early 1900’s comic strip character returns to the screen for only his… or rather her, second attempt at finding pop culture relevance. “Little Nemo In Slumberland” was a series of comic strips that ran from 1905 to 1927 in the pages of most continental American newspapers, a young boy, Nemo, whose dreams transport him to all manner of fanciful locations before he regularly wakes up. The strip was turned into an animated film in the late 1980’s – the commercial reception was lacklustre to say the least – and was practically consigned to the cultural scrapheap until now, over a hundred years since its inception, Netflix takes a big-budget stab at bringing the character and world of Nemo to life. Although Slumberland doesn’t quite work as well as it might, it’s certainly a visual treat for old and young viewers alike, and if nothing else offers a couple hours of meandering entertainment and a hell of a cute digital pig.
Young Nemo (Marlow Barkley, who looks astoundingly like a young Saoirse Ronan) lives with her father, Peter (Kyle Chandler) on a small ocean escarpment in a lighthouse, a lifestyle she has become used to as an adventure away from the troubles of the world. However, when her father is killed in a storm while trying to help other sailors, Nemo is sent to live with her emotionally constipated uncle, Philip (Chris O’Dowd), a doorknob salesman who has little emotional connection with the grief-stricken young woman. Within her grief, Nemo learns that she can travel into her dreams, and discovers an opportunity to meet with her father again, only there’s a behorned beast-man lurking at every turn – Flip (Jason Momoa), a con-artist living in Slumberland who has it own motivations for why he is there. Together with Pig, a sentient replication of one of Nemo’s favourite toys, Flip and Nemo traverse the incredible universe of dreamlike imagination to find her lost father and reconcile Flip’s mysterious origins, all while pursued by Agent Green (Weruche Opia), an operative of the Bureau of Subconscious Activities.
Slumberland is a sweet little movie. It’s not particularly inviting, inasmuch as most of the characters around Nemo are, frankly, unlikeable most of the time, but for pure whimsy and a spectacular visual design aesthetic I would wager this little Netflix effort might find some buzz for technical aspects come awards season. The central character of Nemo has been gender-swapped here for Marlow Barkley’s engrossing portrayal of a young girl grounded by grief after the tragic passing of her father, and an inescapable desire to “find” him again through some gobbledygook dream fantasy. Through the imagination of screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman, together with Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, we’re thrust into a wonderous world where everything is possible if only you can imagine (or dream) it, with the sumptuous visual effects dazzling in every inch of this richly textured, impossible multi-layered tapestry of wild adventures, bespoke dreamscapes, and dashing action. Part of me felt Slumberland aped Robert Rodriguez’ ubiquitously CG-heavy kids flicks like Spy Kids or Shark Boy & Lava Girl, filtered through a melancholy bleakness similar to a Lemony Snicket book or Lewis Caroll’s Alice In Wonderland literature. Slumberland’s origins may predate a lot of more well-known IP but it’s hard to escape just how much of children’s fantasy can be found cliched through the film’s overt escapism.
While Barkley’s Nemo – and I’m sorry, I know that’s the characters name, but every time I heard it I half expected a one-finned clownfish to pop up on the screen somewhere! – is the emotional glue that holds the film together, and the actress is simply tremendous in the part, the film’s main drawcard is undoubtedly Jason Momoa, better known as Aquaman from the DC Studio’s comic book franchise. Momoa, as the enigmatic Flip, plays the role like a weird combination of a shitty Doctor Who and a gaudy Captain Jack Sparrow, a baffling combination that doesn’t quite work despite Momoa obviously having an absolute blast getting to stretch his freewheeling acting chops a little more. Chris O’Dowd downbeats the world’s most boring and incompatible parent Phillip, a man who has not a single clue about raising a child when he’s suddenly saddled with his niece. O’Dowd is a terrific actor and his ability transcends the material he is encumbered with here, but I felt the film leaned too much into absurdist nihilism for his relationship with Nemo than I’d have liked. Kyle Chandler’s bearded lighthouse keeper, Peter, is as emblematic a father figure as any film before it could deliver, and his sudden passing, while expected, isn’t without some genuine pathos. Arguably the film’s MVP, for me anyway, is Weruche Opia’s charismatic
Foxy Cleopatra sorry I mean Agent Green, who chased Nemo and Flip though the dream world dressed as a fantastic 70’s feminist icon. She’s legit laugh-out-loud great, and almost salvages the film on her own.
As a film aimed at young and preteen children, Slumberland will no doubt be an absolute winner. It’s fast paced, filled with fantastic imagery and a sublime sense of humour kids will find engaging. There’s enough depth to the story to make it work if you don’t look too hard, and the performances are designed to appeal less to adults and more to the more formative among the film’s target demographic. In terms of whackadoodle filmmaking there’s almost no chance your kids will have seen anything like the world-building on offer here, most of which is several orders of magnitude better than I had expected going into this. Lawrence and his filmmaking team never pander to their audience, they refuse to dumb it down and take the easy route for their character – grief is portrayed with dead seriousness and without trying to coddle the viewer, and I think modern films have turned this kind of up-frontery into an artform in and of itself. Children are savvy to being thought of as idiots, and they know when a film is pandering to perceived limitations on their intellect. Slumberland doesn’t mince its words in this regard, offering heady themes and juicy subtext for kids to grow up with upon future viewings.
For me, though, I found the film a little overwrought. It’s also a tonal mess; as I alluded to earlier, it’s a cobbled mix of Alice In Wonderland, Lemony Snickett, Mary & Max, and a Robert Rodriguez wet dream come to life, and I found it to be a tough slog at times with its uneven mixture of sadness, whimsy and delight. That’s not to say it doesn’t entertain, because it does, but Slumberland lacks a more mature content streak required to allow adults to participate in its charms as well. I did have a good time with it, yes, but it’s not a film I’ll find myself revisiting any time soon, if at all. For kids it’s probably going to be hammered through school holidays, but adults won’t need to bother. Slumberland is a visual treat, a flawless VFX showcase that I only wish had the dramatic heft behind it to make it an instant classic. Middle-ground Netflix may appeal to some, but with all the aforementioned caveats in place, it will have limited appeal to those of a less forgiving disposition.