Say the name “Nemo” to someone, and they’ll probably think you mean the fish from the Pixar movie. Absent that, they’ll think of the vengeful submarine captain from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) But if their first association with “Nemo” is a little boy with big dreams, you’ll know you’re talking to someone steeped in the worlds of animation, filmmaking, or comics. Winsor McCay’s early-19th-century newspaper comic Little Nemo in Slumberland has inspired creatives from R. Crumb to Neil Gaiman, and from Federico Fellini to Maurice Sendak.
Most recently, it inspired director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, the final movies of the Hunger Games franchise) and writing team David Guion and Michael Handelman (Dinner for Schmucks, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) to revisit Nemo’s world at Netflix, in a heartwarming, visually rich production called Slumberland.
Slumberland boils the “lore” of McCay’s comic strip down to its most fundamental pieces. A good-hearted child returns to a magical quest every time they fall asleep. They buddy up with a disreputable sidekick, and they seem to wake up every time the action comes to a climax. The choice to boil McCay down to basics is good, by the way; his triumph was of form, not narrative, and the original Little Nemo comics are chockablock with overt racial stereotyping.
Nemo, in this modern incarnation, is Marlow Barkley (Single Parents), a young girl forced by parental loss to leave her idyllic lighthouse home and live with her extremely boring and unequipped uncle. She finds refuge in the titular Slumberland when she meets Flip (Jason Momoa), substantially reinvented from McCay’s baldly racist, clown-like caricature of an Irishman. Momoa’s version of the character is an enormous dream-outlaw/hedonist adventurer, all fangs, ram horns, clown shoes, fingerless gloves, shaggy hair, and nail polish, topped with a pink ombre trenchcoat. (My hat is off to Academy Award-nominated Hunger Games series costumer Trish Summerville.)
Barkley plays the straight man (or girl) in the relationship, while Momoa plays her Beetlejuice — by way of the character’s cartoon incarnation, that is, where he’s Lydia Deets’ pal, not her antagonist. Flip is just wild enough to make Nemo feel like she’s getting away with something, but not so extreme that he feels dangerously dangerous. Momoa plays Flip with obvious gusto, in a clown performance that never feels clownish. Without a shred of self-consciousness, he repurposes the talent for strong poses he brings to his DCEU take on Aquaman, using them for kid-friendly hijinks instead. It’s Jason Momoa in perhaps his dad-est role yet, dad-bod and all.
More impressively, Momoa never eclipses his diminutive co-star. It’s one of many ways in which Slumberland is finely balanced. Is it full of spectacle? Obviously: cities made of glass, underwater nightmares, Canada geese the size of fighter planes. But Lawrence never offers spectacle for spectacle’s sake, and the creativity of the environments never becomes more important to the eye than the character action.
Is it funny? Yes: I cackled out loud more than once. But Slumberland is the rare action-heavy family film that doesn’t trade in pop-culture references and sarcastic asides to tickle adult funnybones. Is there a load of exposition? Yes, there’s an underpinning of in-universe dream rules and an antagonistic bureaucracy of dream police in 1970s cosplay, functioning as rails to keep the quest on course and provide obstacles to overcome. But Slumberland never puts world-building out in front of its true center: Nemo, Flip, and Nemo’s wet blanket of an uncle, played by Chris O’Dowd in a come-from-behind third lead.
If Slumberland is excessive in any category, it might be length. While two full hours is a forgiving length in this world of three-hour blockbusters, it may be a tough sit for the youngest in the audience. And while Slumberland never made me yawn, it did make me check the playback timestamp and think, “Gosh, 40 more minutes? How?”
The true pleasure of watching Slumberland isn’t in its inventiveness or originality — it’s a B on both those fronts — but in the delight of simple themes performed well by talented players, harmonizing to greater resonance. I’m a big believer in family movies that cannot strictly be called “great” in any way, but where the filmmakers had the guts to go extremely weird. There’s an entire canon of movies like that, films that feel like fever dreams when you recall them years later.
Slumberland may not truly belong in that category, but it’s certainly closer to it than most of today’s blockbuster family-movie fare. It’s a colorful fantasy, a heartwarming time, and the kind of weirdness that just might get stuck in the head of a creative young viewer. That may be the element of the film that adapts McCay’s work best: His century-old fantasies provided the seed of an idea that keeps flowering into beautiful dreams, generation after generation.
Slumberland is streaming on Netflix now.