It’s true: Jason Momoa is in yet another comic movie adaptation. Francis Lawrence’s Slumberland is not your average comic movie, though: it’s a whimsical family film loosely inspired by a newspaper strip about a a child lost in the land of dreams.
Winsor Mackay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland comic predates Aquaman and other superheroes by 30 years. McCay was an innovator in comics and animation: looking back at his Little Nemo, first published in the New York Herald from 1905-1914, the layouts and colours are wildly innovative. McCay created the first film adaptation of Little Nemo himself, hand-drawing every frame of a short animated film in 1911.
More than a century later, only the essentials of McCay’s work can be found in Slumberland: bright colours, Art Deco architecture, and a young hero called Nemo exploring her dreams.
Nemo (Marlow Barkley) is an imaginative girl who lives an idyllic life in a lighthouse with her father Peter (Kyle Chandler). After a terrible tragedy, Nemo must move to the city with her estranged uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd). Philip is cold and awkward, so Nemo’s only escape from loneliness is in her dreams.
In the dream-world of Slumberland, her stuffed toy Pig comes to life and accompanies her on adventures. In Slumberland she meets Flip (Momoa), a trickster from her father’s fairytales. Flip and Nemo have a treasure map that will lead them to the realm of nightmares, where magical pearls might help them save Peter. Chased by the dream police (Weruche Opia), the odd couple careen through phantasmagoria at a rollicking pace.
Momoa is in his element: always enthusiastic with makeup, he sports fangs, horns, paws, and fluffy ears. He prances and sings through his scenes, committing wholeheartedly to each madcap development in the plot.
Barkley is a fitting counterweight as the sincere and sensible one of the pair. Chandler has found his niche as a dad-for-hire, and makes an excellent lighthouse keeper.
O’Dowd has a tricky role: he’s practiced at playing the straight man, but accent work and hidden depths to Philip’s character throw him some curveballs. Opia gives the typical no-nonsense antagonist more sympathy than we usually see, while Chris D’Silva has a charming supporting part as Nemo’s schoolmate.
A flood of colour
You might be tempted to compare Slumberland to Sandman, Netflix’s other 2022 comic adaptation about a dreamland, but the similarities are superficial. Indeed, Lawrence has his roots in similarly gothic productions like the long-overlooked Constantine and the high-stakes Hunger Games sequels.
The costumes of Slumberland do bear some resemblance to the opulent Capitol: it’s worth the whole film to see Momoa’s metallic brocade suit. The entire film is lovingly decorated: Nemo’s cozy nautical style contrasts well with Flip’s outrageous op-shop chic, while every supporting character pops on screen.
Before his cinema work, Lawrence directed a bountiful catalogue of millennium music videos: Slumberland’s nonsensical dream sequences play out with the same exuberant joy of spectacle over plot. There’s a diverse collection of influences, with visual nods to Everything Everywhere All At Once, Pirates of the Caribbean, Inception, and The Lighthouse.
The VFX are copious, and while some elements look surreal, it fits the childlike quality of the film. Those of us growing weary of murky backdrops and underpaid animators will find the flood of light and colour in Slumberland refreshing.
Movies are spectacles, and Slumberland is fun to watch. Too few films these days, especially those made for home viewing, are lit decently enough to actually follow the action. Cinematographer Jo Willems’ resumé is packed with horror movies, so he knows how to make even the darkest scenes luminous.
The scary bits of Slumberland aren’t too scary for someone Nemo’s age, and grown-ups won’t encounter the creeping terror that they need to get their eyes checked. Every frame blossoms with colour and movement. Slumberland feels less like falling asleep, and more like waking up after a long dark night.
It has all the hallmarks of a classic child’s adventure: treasure maps and balls of string, scary monsters and cute companions. There are some moving meditations on grief and lost innocence, but we’re really here for a carnival ride. Despite bearing little narrative resemblance to McCay’s original, it remains true to his love of weird and whimsical storytelling.
Comics and films in McCay’s day were brand new media bursting with possibility. They promised to bring our dreams to life, and that’s what Slumberland delivers.
Slumberland is currently streaming on Netflix.