Slumberland (2022) poster

Slumberland (2022)


USA. 2022.


Director – Francis Lawrence, Screenplay – David Guion & Michael Handelman, [Uncredited] Based on the Comic-Strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by Windsor McCay, Producers – Peter Chernin, Francis Lawrence, David Ready & Juno Topping, Photography – Jo Willems, Music – Pinar Toprak, Visual Effects Supervisor – Adrian de Wet, Visual Effects – DNeg (Supervisors –Oliver Atherton, Michael Grobe & Tristan Myles), Framestore (Supervisor – Supervisor – Joao Sita), Ghost VFX (Supervisors – Martin Gardeler & Magnus Hilding-Norkjaer), Important Looking Pirates (Supervisor – Philip Engstrom), Incessant Rain Studios, Outpost VFX (Supervisors – Richard Clegg & Sheen Yap), Pinscreen, Rodeo FX (Supervisor – Nikolas Dandrade) & Scanline VFX (Supervisor – Sue Rowe), Special Effects Supervisors – Andrew Verhoeven & Mike Vezina, Production Design – Dominic Watkins. Production Company – Chernin Entertainment/About: Blank.


Marlow Barkley (Nemo), Jason Momoa (Flip), Chris O’Dowd (Philip), Kyle Chandler (Peter), Weruche Opia (Agent Green), India De Beaufort (Ms. Arya), Chris D’Silva (Jamal), Yanna McIntosh (Carla)


Nemo grows up the daughter of the lighthouse keeper Peter and is eager to follow in her father’s footsteps. However, Nemo’s father fails to return after going out to conduct a rescue at sea during a storm. Nemo is placed into the custody of her Uncle Philip, a dull doorknob manufacturer who lives in the city. Nemo enters her dreams where she encounters the mischievous Flip, who was regarded a childhood dream companion of her father. Flip gets Nemo to find a map that shows the way through Slumberland. By using doorways that exist in dreams, he wants to travel to the Sea of Nightmares where can be found a pearl that can bring to life one’s greatest dream. Nemo is hopeful she can bring back her father if she can find the pearl. However, the entire way there their journey is harried by agents of the Bureau of Subconscious Activities who regard Flip as one of their top mischief-makers. As Nemo discovers, Flip has stayed in the realm of dreams so long that he has forgotten who he was in his waking identity.

Little Nemo in Slumberland is one of the legendary early comic-strips. It was the creation of Winsor McCay (1869-1934), one of the great cartoonists during the early decades of the 20th Century. McCay began creating comic-strips in 1903, gaining his first fame with Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-25), a precursor to Little Nemo. Little Nemo in Slumberland premiered in the New York Herald in 1905 and then moved over to William Randolph Hearst’s New York American from 1911-4. Little Nemo was a full page strip centred around the surreal dream adventures of the young boy. The strip gained great popularity and Little Nemo was even adapted to the stage for a successful run in 1908-9.

The comic-strip was widely acclaimed during its day for Winsor McCay’s frequently experimental style and artwork, which included breaking the fourth wall and large oversized comic panels. In each story, Nemo would enter a dream where he was to go on a journey to become the friend of King Morpheus’s daughter but ended up being sidetracked on a series of surreal adventures. Each strip would end with Nemo’s parents waking him up. I would recommend doing a Google image search of some of Winsor McCay’s art to get an idea of just extraordinary this is.

McCay was also active early in the field of animation. Among several other works, McCay co-directed the ten-minute long Little Nemo (1911), although this has no plot, merely features the characters from the strip doing things and is interspersed with live-action scenes of McCay at work. The comic-strip was previously adapted to the screen as the animated Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989), a Japanese-American adaptation that features a script by Ray Bradbury, which holds reasonable faith to the original. However, this suffered from a troubled production history and spotty release schedule.

Nemo (Marlow Barkley) and Flip (Jason Momoa) enter the ballroom of butterflies in Slumberland (2022)
Nemo (Marlow Barkley) and Flip (Jason Momoa) enter the ballroom of butterflies

The immediate sinking feeling you get about Slumberland is that it has been placed in the hands of Francis Lawrence. It is hard to think of anybody else who better defines a middle-of-the-road studio director lacking in any distinctive vision of his own. Lawrence came from a background in music video and made his directorial debut with the Keanu Reeves Constantine (2005), followed by I Am Legend (2007), both of which threw out superlative source material for something inferior. Lawrence followed this with the non-genre circus film Water for Elephants (2011) and next took over The Hunger Games franchise for all of the sequels The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015), followed by Red Sparrow (2018) and a return to the Hunger Games franchise with The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023). He has also produced the alternate world political drama tv series Kings (2009) and the tv series Touch (2012-3) about a father whose son can predict the future.

It should say all that needs to be said about Slumberland that neither Winsor McCay nor the comic-book source is mentioned anywhere on the credits of the film. It could be that the McCay estate considered what is on screen to be at such variance with the original comic-strips that they asked that McCay’s name be removed. Alternately, considering that McCay’s material should now be in the public domain in the US, it could be that the filmmakers simply appropriated the material and never even considered that a ‘based on ____’ credit or token acknowledgement to have been worth adding. Neither option seems inspiring.

The comic-strip and the film feel as though they are two entirely different entities. Everything about Nemo and her father and uncle, which takes up about half the film, does not exist in the comic-strip. Nor is there any pearl in McCay’s original. Flip is a character in the comic but is usually depicted frequently as short and tubby, wearing a top hat and suit and smoking a cigar.

Winsor McCay's original comic panels for the bed with legs dream- Slumberland (2022)
Winsor McCay’s original comic panels for the bed with legs dream

Expectedly, as the film opens on the story of Nemo and her father, where Francis Lawrence plays everything in golden wistful montages and the score is insistently tugging at your emotions, you get a sinking feeling. Nemo, for no real purpose, has now undergone a gender-flip and is a girl, although to be fair this works reasonably well in terms of the film’s theme of connecting with absent or missing father figures. More to the point, Little Nemo in Slumberland never had any backstory, whereas half of Slumberland is now backstory about the poor orphaned Nemo and her efforts to connect with her late father. In fact, what you realise is that Slumberland has about the same basic plot as Inception (2010) – characters jumping through dreams in search of that magical place where the protagonist can forever reunite with a late loved one.

There is precious little to Slumberland that could be considered to be in the same vein as the original comic-strip. Certainly, the scene where Marlow Barkley enters the dream and her bed develops long legs and steps outside the window and strides off across the city is something is something taken right from one of the most well remembered of the comic strip’s panels. But thereafter, things go downhill. About the point that Marlow Barkley and Jason Momoa are running about a city engaged in vehicle chases in a garbage truck, or we get scenes with Jason Momoa raiding food vending machines, which comes with blatant product placement for Twinkies, it feels as though we are in a film that is about as far from Winsor McKay as it is possible to get.

Both the animated film and this make the mistake that the comic-strip should be told as a children’s story and so add generic quest elements. Francis Lawrence delivers a film that has a soulless lack of charm. The only magic there is comes from routine displays of CGI – ballrooms where the dancers are bodies made up of butterflies; the rooms of various places transforming as we move between locations; Jason Momoa in a biplane escaping an evil cloud of black smoke. That and a banal Hollywood plot about a lonely orphan on a quest.

Trailer here

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