By all accounts, Francis Lawrence’s Slumberland is a complete denaturation of Winsor McCay’s whimsical Little Nemo in Slumberland comics. And yet, it still works. Why? Because Lawrence is still a gifted visual storyteller and crafts one fun setpiece after the next in Nemo’s (Marlow Barkley) world of dreams. Add some fun humor peppered by actors Jason Momoa and Chris O’Dowd, and you’ve got a semi-winner in my books.
While watching the film, you won’t learn anything new, especially with how its framing device (dreams) adds as a grief-processing catalyst. Nemo had tragically lost his father (Kyle Chandler) at sea and now lives with her uncle (Chris O’Dowd), who has no idea how to raise a child properly and prefers to focus on his tedious Doorknob sales job. So, Nemo would instead fall asleep and dream about her quest with Flip (Jason Momoa) to get to the Sea of Nightmares to obtain a pearl that will grant her a wish to see her father back inside her dreams.
Jason Momoa and Chris O’Dowd Bring Great Fun to Slumberland
It’s amazingly paint-by-numbers, and Jason Momoa’s performance as Flip feels like a bad hybrid of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean and Momoa’s version of Arthur Curry in Aquaman. The Aquaman bits are fun, especially when he goes “Yeaaah-whoo!!” during intense peril, but the Pirates of the Caribbean bits do not work at all. Regardless, it remains fun to see Momoa having a madcap blast without caring what anyone will think of his performance. We need more actors who do these gonzo performances because their commitment to the bit is always appreciated.
O’Dowd, while underused, is also a fun addition. Being obsessed with doorknobs is the most random obsession of all time, and when he tells Nemo a bedtime story involving doorknobs, I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer ambition of it all. It isn’t enjoyable, yet the way O’Dowd delivers the scene is pitch-perfect and funny. Who would’ve thought that doorknobs would make for great recurring humor? I like the most random form of humor possible, so it was easy for me to laugh at his obsession with doorknobs on every occasion.
As Nemo, I found Marlow Barkley to be fine. Scenes with O’Dowd don’t have much emotional resonance, but I enjoyed her chemistry with Momoa, especially when they need to escape the clutches of Agent Green (Weruche Opia), who works for the Bureau of Subconscious Activities. Their chemistry works best when they’re thwarted in large-scale action sequences, which are the film’s highlight.
Slumberland has a refined visual palette
Lawrence crafts massive setpieces with cinematographer Jo Willems, which teeter the line between epic and completely bonked out. There’s a scene that feels highly reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, inside a dream so crazy you wouldn’t even think they would attempt do even do what they’re doing, and yet it works.
The energy of Willems’ cinematography, coupled with Lawrence’s keen visual eye always envelops you in the frame. He crafts fun action set pieces, and brings the best out of Momoa and Barkley for them to work. The only ones that don’t work happen during the film’s tail end, where Nemo hunts for the Pearl. There are lots of emotional manipulation during these moments and they don’t necessarily hit as much as they should, even when the film brings back Kyle Chandler into the mix as a form of “closure” between Nemo and her father.
Chandler’s talents are wasted on screen, only appearing for fleeting moments. Of course, he plays the “dead dad,” but I would’ve loved to see more of Chandler’s talents throughout the movie to solidify Nemo’s love for her father. You can’t cast a highly talented actor to appear in your movie for ten minutes out of a two-hour-long runtime. It doesn’t make sense and is a total waste of the actor’s time and talents.
The movie is also terribly predictable. Lawrence and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman try to give audiences a bit of tension during the climax, but we know what will happen regardless. The film is poised for a “feel-good” ending as soon as it starts, so it isn’t surprising to see the movie ends the way it does.
Still, even with some slightly annoying flaws, Slumberland still works. Fans of Little Nemo may not (justifiably) enjoy it, but even as someone who has read (and watched) McCay’s stories, I found myself entranced by the film’s amazing visual palette, creative action sequences and fun performances from Momoa, O’Dowd, and Opia. It doesn’t break the mold, but it remains an admirable effort nonetheless.
Slumberland is now streaming on Netflix. What did you think of the movie? Do you think it was a good adaptation of Little Nemo in Slumberland or not? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow us on social media!
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