Synopsis – A young girl discovers a secret map to the dreamworld of Slumberland, and with the help of an eccentric outlaw, she traverses dreams and flees nightmares, with the hope that she will be able to see her late father again.
My Take – On paper, a $150 million worth lush fantasy-adventure that combines old-world charm with cutting-edge visual effects starring Jason Momoa as a horned stud doing a cross between Jack Sparrow and Beetlejuice, and going on an adventure with a soft-spoken 11-year-old, doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
And with a source material in the form of Winsor McCay’s early-19th-century newspaper comic strip ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland’, the film possesses more than all the makings of a blockbuster children’s fantasy in the colorful over-the-top vein of Alice in Wonderland (2010). Only if, it hadn’t spent so much time being convoluted and familiar, at the same time, that it forgets to have any sort of fun with its set-up.
Sure, the film, directed by Francis Lawrence (Constantine, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and written by David Guion and Michael Handelman (Dinner for Schmucks, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), is not without its admirable qualities and seems to have its heart is in the right place, as it uses the core conceit of the pen-and-ink adventure series as a springboard for a rumination on a little girl’s grief.
Instead, it is let down by the fact that as a fantasy, there’s nothing fantastical about the indulging borderline-pointless visual spectacle, and ultimately becomes a technical exercise that doesn’t do necessary diligence for its characters and their emotions, which, by the end, just feels exhausting.
Yes, it’s a diverting enough watch due to the efforts of the cast, assuming you stay awake as it awkwardly balances glum emotions with heavily digitally engineered sequences.
The story follows Nemo (Marlow Barkley), a young girl, who has been living a fairy tale like life with her father, a grizzled seaman named Peter (Kyle Chandler), in a romantic old lighthouse, away from everybody else. But when Peter goes out on one stormy night on a sudden rescue mission and doesn’t return, a distraught Nemo is soon shipped off to live in the big city with her estranged uncle Phil (Chris O’Dowd), who lives a life opposite in every way imaginable.
While Peter would thrive outdoors, forage for his own food, and revel in breaking the rules, Phil lives an isolated boring life, eats out of packages, and sells doorknobs for a living. Struggling to adjust to her new life in Phil’s impersonal apartment, Nemo sticks mostly to herself that is until she is visited in her dreams by Flip (Jason Mamoa), a magical creature with long mane of hair, who Nemo recognizes as the swashbuckling character from her father’s bedtime stories.
Lurking in the land of dreams for a while, Flip has been searching for a secret map Peter possessed which could lead them to some mysterious pearls that would grant each one a wish. Convinced that a pearl can help see her father again, even if it is in a dream, Nemo joins Flip on an adventure through Slumberland, discovering strange new corners of the dreamscape along the way, while avoiding nightmares and dream cops like Agent Green (Weruche Opia), who has been hunting Flip for a while.
Here, the realm of dreams is described as a world with no consequence, but as constructed, that comes in a film with no clear creative compass, it ends up proving more mystifying than magical. Alternately zany and sappy, it doesn’t help that despite all the efforts to craft its own world logic, that the film sometimes breaks its own rules.
Sure, you could just not think about it too much and enjoy the ride, but the ride is so lackluster that your mind will be drawn to the inconsistencies. This one is a fantasy film per se, but it actually misses out on the elements of imagination. Even the film’s monster is not scary at all. Its imaginary world lacks enchantment and is actually a land of confusion and chaos.
Considering the previous works of director Lawrence which includes big, glossy, entertaining spectacles, it is a bit surprising that this one comes up short in its capacity to awe. Yes, this is a story that’s ultimately about grief, and it is clear director Lawrence wanted to use dreams as a way to give Nemo an arc of overcoming her grief, but it just doesn’t work because the film’s tone is all over the place.
On one hand we have an engaging family drama in the real world and on the other an obnoxious, uninspired dream world that often kills any kind of emotional momentum. The beautifully tragic themes with Nemo and her journey of mourning her father don’t always come through because we’re constantly cutting back to the chaotic Slumberland. This one is a far more complicated film to dissect than you’d imagine.
This is the case not because it’s a layered narrative with complex ideas, but because there is just way too much going on here. While the cast and characters leave a lasting impact on our minds, the touching and emotional story of an orphan girl who risks it all just to see her father one more time just doesn’t. The film also misused the dynamic between Nemo and Uncle Philip which becomes the unlikely center of a film that puts far too much emphasis on the new guardian’s pitiful introversion and inability to connect with his niece.
Nevertheless, the production design is spectacular. The Art Deco hall of bathroom mirrors that Flip and Nemo can only access by climbing out of a toilet’s water tank suggests delightful dream logic; elsewhere Momoa gets to show his salsa swagger by dancing with a stranger’s festive dreams; and while an obviously calculated injection of cuteness, Nemo’s furry stuffed pig becoming a silent sidekick is a winner in character design.
Performance wise, Jason Momoa gamely throws himself into Flip’s swagger, as well as building a believable connection with Nemo as they go from reluctant allies to genuine friends. Momoa is more mischievous than his typical onscreen personas, and the Aquaman star seems to relishing working on this project. Newcomer Marlow Barkley holds her own against her co-star. Barkley is a special talent that will hopefully go out to do great things. The material does not give her a lot to play with, though to the young actress’ credit she manages to elevate what’s on the page, particularly with Chandler and her onscreen uncle.
In supporting roles, Kyle Chandler, Chris O’Dowd, India de Beaufort, and Weruche Opia bring in impressive performances, while Ali Asghar Shah, Humberly González and Tonya Cornelisse are effective in smaller roles. On the whole, ‘Slumberland’ is a misfire of a fantasy adventure that struggles to balance it emotions with its spectacle.
Directed – Francis Lawrence
Rated – PG
Run Time – 117 minutes