A girl named Nemo (Marlow Barkley) lives with her free-spirited father (Kyle Chandler) on an island isolated from civilization. When a parent dies at sea, the heroine is sent to live with her uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd), whom she has never seen before. He is the exact opposite of his brother: closed in on himself, unsociable, interested only in door locks (he runs a company for their manufacture). From the dull reality, Nemo hides in dreams. In them, the girl meets Flip (Jason Momoa) – a character from her father’s night stories, a brash and noisy man with goat horns. He declares that Nemo should help him find a certain pearl in the Land of Dreams. Like, she will help Flip remember who he is. And the girl will be able to meet her father again – albeit in a dream.
Slumberland is loosely based on the work of Winsor McKay, an early 20th-century cartoonist and animation pioneer who was one of the first to experiment with capturing moving drawings on camera. Stories about “Little Nemo in the Land of Dreams” McKay did, however, in the form of comics – also for his revolutionary years. Winsor changed the shape and size of individual frames, looked for ways to creatively convey the experience of being in a surreal dream through a drawing, and finally, frankly mocked the medium and broke the “fourth wall” (we recall that it was in the 10s of the last century). His work later inspired Walt Disney, Maus author Art Spiegelman, and even Federico Fellini.
On the big screen, his work has already been filmed. In 1989, the joint American-Japanese cartoon “Little Nemo: Adventures in the Land of Dreams” was released: a curious picture, but it failed miserably at the box office. Netflix’s Slumberland is just the second attempt to bring McKay’s fantasies into film space. And it seems to fail again.
And not because the creators shoveled the entire plot of “Little Nemo” and built their own from the echoes of the original work. This is just not a problem: for all the artistic genius of McKay, he was not the best storyteller. But because a Netflix picture cannot convey even one hundredth of the creative power of a centuries-old comic book. If “Little Nemo” broke ideas about the possibilities of his art form, created something new and daring, then “Slumberland” is as unprincipled and passive a movie as it is possible in principle. Another streaming “content”, not particularly bad and certainly not too good.
In theory, the dream world in the film should act as a kind of antipode to Nemo’s boring gray reality with its sterile glass schools and uncle’s lifeless apartment, inhabited by door locks of different ages and sizes. But in reality, she looks exactly the same faded. The whole Land of Dreams is five inexpressive locations, some of which are also rather lousy drawn on a computer. However, it was strange to expect any bright surrealism from Francis Lawrence, the author of Constantine, I Am Legend, Red Sparrow and a couple of parts of The Hunger Games. The director is already very uneven, but most importantly, he is one of those whom the tongue does not dare to call a big dreamer. The texture of “Slumberland” would suit some Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Del Toro or, ideally, Terry Gilliam. Although the latter already has “Land of the Tides” – in fact, a tougher version of the same story.
Lawrence’s directorial creativity is enough to sometimes launch a free-flying camera around the characters – this is how he apparently shows the chaotic essence of the world of dreams. Nearly all of the vivid imagery, such as the city-walking bed in the film, comes directly from McKay. Only Winsor’s love of racial stereotypes was not adopted (the time was different): they were all packaged in one harmless joke about Canadians. For a long time, probably, they chose those over whom you can still laugh.
But, most importantly, all the limitless potential of dream stories was reduced to an absolutely secondary drama about accepting death. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of making a children’s movie about a complex issue. That’s just in a world spoiled by Pixar, it is difficult to feel the millionth time repeated truths. Pain must be accepted in order to survive it and move on. Sometimes what we think we want is not what we really need. In addition, “Land of Dreams” pronounces already simple morals aloud: there are already two heroines who, in the middle of the film, arrange small psychoanalysis sessions for Nemo and chew all the metaphors to the bored viewer.
Neither the charisma of Jason Momoa, who, in fact, plays the local version of Jack Sparrow (who plays well, but why – there is already a Sparrow) will not help such a fundamental scenario passivity. Nor the sincere efforts of the rest of the artists: Chris O’Dowd, it seems, is generally too good for this movie. “Land of Dreams” was made with good intentions, but not at all by the same hands. For a film about fantasies and dreams, there is surprisingly little creative spark in it.