Slumberland (Review) – An Uneven Fantasy You Won’t Lose Sleep Over

DIRECTOR: Francis Lawrence

CAST: Marlow Barkley, Jason Momoa, Kyle Chandler, Weruche Opia, India de Beaufort, Chris O’Dowd

RUNNING TIME: 117 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG

BASICALLY…: A young girl (Barkley) enters a fantastical world of dreams…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Though not as universally known as the likes of Snoopy, Garfield, Dick Tracy and many other comic strip characters, Little Nemo – the little boy who always dreamed of big, fantastical adventures in the world of Slumberland from his 1905 debut onwards – is considered a milestone figure for influencing what the standard comic strip could be, least of all due to the vibrant imagination of its original creator Winsor McCay. However, attempts to bring the character and his dreams to the screen have often been unsuccessful, most notably the 1989 anime version which went through a lengthy stint in development hell (during which the likes of George Lucas, Hayao Miyazaki, Brad Bird and many others briefly came on board) before dying a quick death at the box office.

The message at the time seemed to be that nobody cared about what goes on in a little boy’s dreams, but neither Netflix nor director Francis Lawrence seem to have gotten the memo, since their wildly different adaptation – titled Slumberland – attempts nonetheless to bring Little Nemo’s fantasies to life, with amusing and often fun, but rarely memorable, results.

In this version, Nemo – played by Marlow Barkley in a gender-swapped portrayal – lives in a lighthouse with her father (Kyle Chandler), who delights her with endless stories about his imaginary friend, the smooth outlaw Flip. However, when tragedy strikes, Nemo is brought to the mainland to live with her estranged uncle (Chris O’Dowd), who struggles to connect with a niece he barely knows. The only escape that Nemo clings onto is when she goes to sleep at night, during which she travels to the vast dream world known as Slumberland, where she encounters none other than Flip himself (Jason Momoa), who is desperately searching for a map that will lead him to an important treasure. As Nemo tags along on Flip’s adventure, during which the two travel though multiple dreams and are pursued by dream agents such as Green (Weruche Opia), she begins to find the subconscious courage that she needs to move on from her tragedy in the real world.

The appeal of bringing a character like Little Nemo to the screen is that there are plenty of opportunities for visual creativity, and the film works best when it is simply indulging in its many fantastical set-pieces, where you’ll find things such as people made entirely out of butterflies, giant geese flying through the snowy mountains, giant octopuses made out of ink, and other crazy stuff that often makes it feel like an all-too literal fever dream. However, while sometimes it is rather gorgeous and even impressive, other times it can look like a PS1 game circa 2001; such is the uneven nature of the film’s visual effects, which lack the consistency to create a living, breathing world that feels real enough to leap off the screen. It always feel like you’re just watching the long and laborious showreel of numerous graphic artists rather than being sucked in to a filmic world you can imagine (or, more appropriately, dream) yourself in, which frequently takes you out of the story it’s trying to tell.

The moments where it uses the heavy effects to imaginative use, are the ones where Slumberland feels the most realised, even when they’re complimenting a story that’s certainly well-meaning but formulaic in its execution. It isn’t that the themes of grief and learning to move on from tragic loss are ill-suited for a character like Little Nemo (and before you ask, no I don’t know much about the source material, so I have no idea how it compares to the original), but it’s just that you’ve seen other films tackle them in other, much more profound ways than this movie does. This is despite some spirited work by young lead actress Marlow Barkley, whose uncanny resemblance to a young Saoirse Ronan gives her a slight edge when it comes to delivering some of the film’s heavier moments, and Jason Momoa who is going full Johnny Depp all throughout, but is clearly having a blast while doing it. It’s fun seeing these two actors interact with one another, and they have a nice enough chemistry, but again you’ve seen characters like these before, and so the effect isn’t nearly as fresh as it would otherwise like to think.

Ultimately, though, like most dreams Slumberland is something you’ll struggle to remember going forward. Because it plays things pretty safe, and since aside from the occasional visual delights it rarely grasps the opportunity to be fully creative, it doesn’t leave a big enough impression to feel like it’ll have long lasting power with future audiences. For many, the film will simply go in one ear and out the other, leaving little in between that’ll make you want to truly revisit it after the initial viewing. There’s just about enough stuff that works which warrants at least one watch, but anyone going in thinking they’ll be seeing something truly dreamy will probably benefit from just waking up.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Slumberland is a family fantasy that boasts some occasionally inspired visuals and a few spirited performances, but a formulaic story and uneven visual effects make it something that, like most dreams, you’ll struggle to remember afterwards.

Slumberland will be released on Netflix from Friday 18th November 2022.

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