“Time to wake up, kid.”
When her father, Peter, is unexpectedly lost at sea, Nemo (Marlow Barkley) is uprooted from her home at a lighthouse in the Pacific Northwest to live with her estranged uncle (Chris O’Dowd) at his fancy, high-rise condo in the city. A fish out of water in the worst way possible, Nemo struggles to adapt, making navigating her new private school (read prison) challenging. But at night, she slips off to Slumberland, a magical, dreamlike world where she obtains a map that might reconnect her with her late father.
Based on the Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip by Winsor McCay, Slumberland is a family film, undoubtedly crafted with the youthful viewer in mind. What begins as a unique tale along the coast of the Pacific quickly transcends into an otherworldly adventure where nothing is as it seems, and everything is possible.
Jason Momoa of Aquaman fame stars as Flip, an eccentric and charismatic outlaw who teams up with Nemo in her quest to find her dad. Flip was friends with Peter, a regular character in his nightly stories. To her, he is familiar, a sense of comfort in a dreamlike world plagued by nightmares. But their journey isn’t for the faint of heart. Mixed within the magic is an octopus-shaped death cloud that feeds on fear, an emotion Nemo struggles to comprehend fully.
Flooded with special effects and CGI trickery, Slumberland relies heavily on the visual artistry that consumes nearly every second of the roughly two-hour feature. At times, the approach works. But when it falters, it does so with little poise.
Lead by a newly discovered map, our dynamic duo infiltrates other people’s dreams, looking for a series of doors leading them to a group of pearls, each offering an ultimate wish. For Nemo, she longs to see her father. Flip is stuck in this chaotic world, constantly on the run. He merely wants to wake up, to escape.
When Nemo is awake, ditching school and alienating herself from her classmates and uncle, her struggles with grief are apparent. But the adults in her life, though meaning well, don’t take notice. So while the story hinges on the cohesive existence of both worlds, it is hard not to notice a drop-off when she rolls over, her stuffed pig situated tightly in the crevice of her arm.
Credit Momoa for this. Enriched in personality and heart, Flip is a unique character that radiates through the screen. His playful approach to life is undeniable as the two ebb and flow throughout the magical worlds they permeate. His and Nemo’s growing bond is a spark amidst the sea of gloom, giving life to them both as they attempt to outrun an official hellbent on arresting the land’s most allusive outlaw.
I am not thoroughly familiar with the source material, but the roots of the premise offer great promise. While sacrifices are often required when a project transfers mediums, several inexcusable plot holes remain. But again, Slumberland is made for the kids.
It’s hard not to compare this film to the likes of 2006’s Night at the Museum and 2008’s Bedtime Stories. Thematic similarities aside, the color pallet and humor are undeniably akin. However, while those two films did great things in their respective releases, they both occurred over a decade ago. Either they were ahead of their time, or Slumberland is stuck in the past.
*This film is streaming globally on Netflix.