Patron Pick – Slumberland

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.

Slumberland (2022)
Written by David Guion and Michael Handelman
Directed by Francis Lawrence

The collective American memory is a fickle thing. There have been pieces of art that reached astronomical levels of fame within the culture a hundred years ago that have been completely lost to the masses. I tend to think this is intentional. It’s dangerous to have a society where people remember. In remembering, we will make connections, and when that happens, those in power don’t have long on their thrones. Like a dream fading in the first few minutes of waking up, we’ve forgotten about Little Nemo in Slumberland.

In October 1905, in the pages of the New York Herald, the first Little Nemo comic by writer/artist Winsor McCay was published. It would run in at least one publication from that point until 1927. It featured the adventures of Nemo, a little boy who, when he dreams, enters a magical world where nothing is ever what it seems or stays the same way for too long. He would find friends in Flip, a top-hat-wearing, cigar-chomping green clown with the words “Wake Up” emblazoned on his hat. A third companion would be added, a sad reflection of the white supremacist ideology in the United States, an African Imp befriended by the two when they visited the Candy Islands. While this figure did not achieve the level of fame as other minstrel show offshoots, like Mickey Mouse & Bugs Bunny, it still tarnishes what is otherwise one of the most brilliant pieces of pop art to ever be produced. And then Netflix made a movie that just sucked the soul out of the whole damn thing.

In the film, a young girl named Nemo (Marlow Barkley) has lived with her father (Kyle Chandler) in a lighthouse since her mother passed away. Father tells his daughter stories every night about his own adventures as a youth with his friend Flip. Nemo becomes caught up in these stories, bonding her ever closer with her dad. Then tragedy strikes; Nemo’s father is killed during a horrible storm, and she is sent to live with her uncle, Philip (Chris O’Dowd). Philip is everything a child would find boring & tedious, which drives Nemo further into her grief.

Yet one night, her stuffed pig comes to life, her bed grows legs, and she’s suddenly in a new world where dreams are real. It’s here she meets Flip (Jason Momoa), and they go on a series of nightly escapades in an attempt to bring her dad back. They are pursued by Agent Green (Werchue Opia), who stops rogue figments like Flip. Of course, we know you can’t bring back dead parents; this is a lesson Nemo also learns. But in the process, she awakens something in her uncle, something he had forgotten about his brother, and they can start fresh, the promise of a new family & beautiful dreams coming true on a new morning’s horizon.

It all sounds charming, but the final product is a mish-mash of tired cliches, unimpressive digital special effects, and a complete lack of genuine heart. It’s really devastating because the movie is coming from such a fantastic piece of the source material. I will credit the film for diversifying the cast and removing the ugly racial stereotypes. Those parts of the original comic strip needed to go and shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But along with that, Netflix seems to have jettisoned the scene of wonder & grandeur that Little Nemo evoked. The problem could be that this isn’t a concept that makes for a good movie adaptation. This is not the first attempt to transform the idea into a new medium. 

Starting in 1905, the same year the comic debuted, there were already stage adaptations in the works. It was a hit and toured the United States for two years. McCay had already become well-known from previous comics work and had a Vaudeville act where he would give chalk talks. Chalk talks were a form of lecturing where the lecturer would draw illustrations as they spoke that emphasized the topic of the talk. McCay arranged so that when the Little Nemo musical was in a place, he also gave chalk talks in that same city.

McCay was also an early animation pioneer and included Little Nemo in a 1911 picture that combined live-action & animation. There have been numerous attempts at animated shows & films based on the comic strip from various countries worldwide. In 2012, the Sarasota Opera commissioned an opera based on Little Nemo. In 1990, Capcom released Little Nemo: The Dream Master for the NES. The character and his world have also been slapped onto countless merchandise dating back to 1905. So, I can’t be too upset if I don’t like this Netflix movie because Little Nemo will endure.

I do want to use this space to showcase McCay’s artwork. Below I have shared just a few stunning pieces. I will encourage you to look up more if it interests you. If you’re so inclined, I recommend Daydreams and Nightmares: The Fantastic Visions of Winsor McCay, 1898-1934, a book that showcases the artist’s work in Little Nemo but also beyond that and provides commentary on the context of his work. It sucks that Netflix dropped the ball on this one; however, are any of us really surprised?

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