Making fantasy movies for kids is difficult. I don’t begrudge any filmmaker who wants to make a special one because it’s hard to predict which ones will connect with viewers. It’s not enough to create a magical world of fantastic beasts, there must be an intangible that’s hard to put a finger on. Netflix’s Slumberland, which is based on Winsor McCay’s classic Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips, has wonderful visual effects and a deeply emotional core, but it’s lacking that little extra something that would make this movie a dream.
Starring young Marlow Barkley as a gender-swapped version of McCay’s titular hero, the 11-year-old Nemo lives on the sea with her father (Kyle Chandler), who teaches her how to run the lighthouse guiding wayward seamen home. He fills her head with fantastical stories of the many surreal adventures he’s had alongside his outlaw friend Flip. One night, after telling another such story, he is tragically lost at sea. Forced to live in a dull city apartment with her boring uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd) who sells doorknobs for a living and can barely hide his dislike for parenting, Nemo escapes into Dreamland to be with her father once again. How does Nemo plan on doing this? She’s discovered a map that allows her to travel through the dreams of other people she’s met.
A highlight of the marketing campaign, and appropriately so, is Jason Momoa as the 9-foot-tall outlaw Flip, who looks like a faun from The Chronicles of Narnia if he were a hobo. Momoa is off the charts wild, with Flip introducing himself as “a troubling mix of father-figure and pent-up masculinity.” It’s insanely accurate, too. For every word of wisdom there’s a spot of trouble that Flip gets Nemo into during their journey through the Sea of Nightmares to find wish-granting pearls. Flip also likes to dance, and dance he does. A pointy-eared Momoa getting his groove on in a hotel bathroom is exactly as fun as you think it might be. Flip also drags Nemo into confrontations with the Dream Police, led by Agent Green (Weruche Opia) who is like Agent Smith with a giant afro. The Dream Police operate in a similarly office-oriented environment as the Time Variance Authority in Loki, which is always fun to see gigantic metaphysical concepts such as time, space, and dreams managed in the most mundane of settings.
Slumberland teases wild possibilities of mesmerizing dreamscapes, and to be fair the few dream sequences we get are gorgeous. Director Francis Lawrence has always had a keen visual eye, stretching back to Constantine, I Am Legend, Like Water for Elephants, and The Hunger Games. It’s tough to comprehend that he’s the same guy whose last movie was 2018’s R-rated assassin thriller Red Sparrow, which was fine but kinda drab. He’s much better when allowed to play around with more vivid concepts. In one breathtaking dream, Flip and Nemo salsa dance with a woman surrounded by other dancers made of fluttering butterflies. They hit the road, and enter a stirring chase scene, with a kid-trucker sporting an Elvis haircut, and evade a cloudy darkness that threatens to destroy all of Slumberland.
If only there were more of these beautiful sequences, but it feels like the budget was already being pushed to the limit with the little that we got. The Nemo stories are filled with so many wondrous locations that explore the many unexplainable aspects of dreaming that it’s disappointing Slumberland can’t deliver the same. There’s so much more that could’ve been done, and maybe if this were a big budget studio effort that potential could’ve been reached. Lawrence makes the most of what he has to work with, though.
Screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman don’t really play into any connection to the earlier Nemo stories. It’s not as if that’s a franchise fans are dying to see adapted, anyway. There have been various adaptations to mixed success, including a terrific 1989 animated film that led to an odd Nintendo video game that has become a cult classic. I owned it. It’s weird. But Slumberland holds barely any relation to anything related to what came before, and instead resembles a typical YA adventure, in ways that are good and bad. Nemo’s quest is driven by grief, but the journey is also a means of learning to cope with tragedy and to grow up. It’s the kind of emotional arc we’ve seen replicated time and time again, and no amount of dancing Jason Momoa can prevent it from being predictable. Way too long is also spent establishing the logic and rules of Slumberland, with Flip being the unfortunate deliverer of maddening amounts of exposition.
So while Slumberland isn’t as captivating as it could’ve been, it’s at least easier to grasp and remember than dreams tend to be. Momoa and Barkley give expressive performances that demand a wide range of emotions, while Lawrence delivers a kid-friendly adventure that occasionally manages to dazzle. Still, I can’t help but feel that there’s a better Little Nemo film to be made someday.
Slumberland is in select theaters now and hits Netflix on November 18th.