East Meets West #25: Little Nemo .vs. Slumberland

East Meets West #25: Little Nemo .vs. Slumberland

Last November, I learned that Netflix released a live-action adaptation of Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo comics, and my first response was “What?” It seemed odd that producers would attempt to hash out a modern-day remake of a franchise that’s been dormant since 1927; not to mention, how since then many popular movies with a similar premise of traveling through dream worlds have overtaken its spotlight since then; Inception featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Satoshi Kon’s Paprika being two films which come into mind (hmm…. the subject of a future post maybe??) It was however, a nice trip back to my childhood experiences with another anime based on this same franchise: Little Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland from 1989: which, whimsical and well-animated as it was, and captivating to my younger self, ended up bombing spectacularly when I revisited it with a grown-up mindset.

Having found the perfect opportunity to snag a relatively easy comparison of these two flicks (mind you, I’ve found the last three comparisons fairly difficult to write about), I found time to watch Slumberland over the Christmas break, and am now ready to present my once again fallible opinion on whether or not it holds up against its Japanese spiritual predecessor.

Eastern Competitor #25: Little Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland

American kid takes an extravagant acid trip across the boundaries of his own consciousness

Little Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland tells the story of Nemo, a young boy in New York City with a pet flying squirrel named Icarus, who has very vivid dreams. One day, he is invited to the mythical kingdom of Slumberland who appoints him as the playmate to King Morpheus’ daughter, Princess Camille. Along the way, he runs into things such as learning to be a prince, a trip across balloons, and an encounter with the nation’s most wanted troll Flip; the association which leads him to wreak havoc on its king and trigger a rescue mission for him.

Fun fact: this is a film that Hayao Miyazaki, the famed founder of Studio Ghibli, worked on during his days as an animator – he went on to call working on it as the worst experience of his professional career. Not only him, but this film went through the eyesight of people like famed directors George Lucas, Chris Columbus and the Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard, of the musical industry. Needless to say, in a production process that lasted seven years and billions of yen’s worth of investment, the film came out on 15 July 1989, and became a slew of box office diarrhea, bringing in a third of its budget, and forcing its makers, Tokyo Movie Shinsha, to slave themselves off to American animated shows and never again try a project this ambitious.

Western Competitor #25: Slumberland

Wanna see a film where Aquaman gets stoned out of his mind?

Starring Jason Momoa of Aquaman fame and emerging child actrress Marlow Barkley, Slumberland tells the story of Nemo, a young girl (yes, you heard that right – Nemo here IS A GIRL) who lives with her fisherman father, Peter, in a lighthouse. When the latter dies during one storm, Nemo moves in with her estranged uncle Philip in Toronto to begin a new urban life. Having been raised isolated from community for her whole life, she struggles to adjust, and retreats into the dream-world of Slumberland in the hopes of finding closure with her father, aided by the region’s most wanted felon, Flip, travelling through different peoples’ dreams and shaking them up. Basically Inception, without the complexity.

Directed by Francis Lawrence of The Hunger Games, Constantine and I Am Legend, and produced by Chernin Entertainment, DNEG, Framestore and Scanline VFX amongst others, Slumberland premiered amidst Netflix’s catalogue on 18 November 2022, receiving mixed reviews; with its intrigue, production quality (leagues better and more coordinated than its predecessor) and acting performance getting praise. While it has yet to win any accolades, it currently sits atop Netflix’s most-streamed programs with more than a billion minutes accrued of streaming time.

The Showdown

The films, in contrast to the comic strip, offer a linear storyline and an attempt to give a cohesive adventure for Nemo and their buddies to flow through; as far as that principle goes, in addition to the source material treatment, it’s got enough material for me to look upon from that end. As I did with the Dragon League/The Mighty Ducks or Castle In The Sky/Raiders Of The Lost Ark posts, I will investigate the films’ execution of character, adventure, and its underlying elements.

Category #1: Nemo/her pet

We start with examining the two Nemoes of the story, starting with the older one, Little Nemo: an imaginative boy whose dreams elicit adventure, wonder, dread and danger. Accompanying him in his travels is an original character, a cute flying squirrel named Icarus, who seems to have a penchant for speaking in squeaky, unintelligible gibberish like Chewbacca from Star Wars. He’s by all appearances a typical suburban New York kid with a loving family, especially his ever-so busy dad, who can’t take him to the circus that passed by his house one day. Live-action Nemo shares the same familial bond as her male counterpart, with whom he shares stories about his adventures with a dream-world character named Flip, and lives an alternative lifestyle compared to most modern kids: homeschooled, occupied with toys, and a hands-on, day-to-day lifestyle. Her companion is a plush pig who comes alive in her dreams, which unlike the former do not manifest until she moves in with Philip.

Differences in characterization is where the two bridge apart, and it’s here that Nemo from Slumberland stands out by being one thing that Little Nemo fails to be: an investable character. Little Nemo is about as bland as a brick wall, and only serves to drive the plot forward rather than be somebody worth exploring. We know very little about this character aside from his heroics, and the god-like treatment he gets from the people of Slumberland, all the way up to becoming royalty and having a romance with Princess Camille was just lazy. And his dialogue isn’t that exciting either: it’s rugged with lame exclamations such as “Wowee!” at the blimp, directing the course of the story or complaining about his pajamas. As for the other one: we see her display inner conflict and feelings over her loss, but also occasionally pull off a smart-aleck quote like comparing school to a prison on her first day there and expose her uncle’s initial fumblings to connect with her. She works hard for her goals, is inventive at finding ways out of tight spots, and the story is just about as much as her adventure as a discovery about herself, and finding her inner peace.

All this makes her into a real, somewhat relatable person that keeps the viewer engaged in her journey, one who you can sympathize with and wish to hug as if she were a little sister, thereby furnishing her saga to completion. That makes her special, and stand out as the protagonist rather than just a narrative pylon which Little Nemo does. Oh, and Pig is more helpful and adorable of a sidekick than Icarus is: just to get that out of the way.

Slumberland 1-0 Little Nemo

Category #2: Flip

With Flip, the situation is much different compared to Nemo’s. In both versions they still sport the same red coat and status as troublemakers, but that’s about it. Flip from Little Nemo, again, appears much closer to his comic counterpart, looking like a mix between Ronald McDonald’s chronically ill cousin and the Monopoly man, sporting an orange top hat and a cigar (I’m surprised this passed for a children’s film). Again, he’s bland, and is only known for his trolling, but without him he wouldn’t be the trigger for the film’s final arc, by convincing Nemo to open a forbidden door using a key that King Morpheus gave him. He’s goofy and satisfactorily clownish (no pun intended), but all things considered pretty monotone and useless.

In Slumberland, Jason Momoa’s depiction of Flip has a gruff, macho outlook to him, being less of a trickster and switching between the role of Nemo’s “adoptive father” in Slumberland and the robber to Agent Green’s cop. He’s responsible for instigating most of the film’s action and its fun and important moments: most especially, near the end when it is revealed who he really is: Philip’s dreamworld persona, left alone as a result of his isolated and depressed personality, and the imaginative void caused when his brother left to raise a family. Gradually, Flip and Nemo learn much from each other about making the most of their time with family, the importance of such, and that knowledge transfers over to the real world as Nemo gets closer with Philip.

That’s cute and all, but still I found the first Flip to be better. He may not be as in-depth as Jason Momoa’s version, but I couldn’t really get over his eccentric getup which looked like a mix of Hagrid and one of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things and moreso, how his performance lacked the joy and playfulness that Little Nemo‘s Flip had. In spite of being underdeveloped, he’s at least fun and authentic to watch, while Slumberland treats him as like watching Batman try to be a babysitter or the Terminator being a kindergarten teacher. No matter how great your character development is, if the actors don’t fit the role in all places, then they’re as good as moot.

Little Nemo 1-1 Slumberland

Category #3: Supporting Cast

I’m going to do something a little different here and consider only the BEST members of the films’ supporting cast. And who did they consist of? For Slumberland I’m going with Nemo’s family members: her father Peter and uncle Philip, whose relationship with Nemo and especially each other drive the film’s direction. Though you only know them for a few minutes of screen-time, they made the most of their appearances, with their character backstories explored to great detail and being there to offer our heroine profound words of wisdom and encouragement to help heal her broken heart. Little Nemo has excellence in the jovial goblin troupe, the Boomps from the second half, whose cute, fuzzy designs matched their friendly, loyal and gentle demeanors that still warm my heart today; with the Nightmare King’s appearance remains to me the film’s highlight, with his booming voice and enormous scale emphasizing final-boss quality.

Who are the remaining supporting cast members? There’s Nemo’s schoolmates and Agent Green, both who felt like plot fodder and the latter making me slightly me confused as to whether she’s a secondary “villain” or a big sister kind of figure; that’s never really clarified, while the kraken-like Nightmare and Slumberland’s other inhabitants (save for the Canadian dude flying on a geese) were not that stellar. And don’t even get me started on Little Nemo’s parents, Princess Camille, Professor Genius and King Morpheus – they are the definition of low-tier as characters can possibly get, being unimposing and stereotypical of their tropes – the humble butler, spoiled brat princess and the friendly royal bait. Overall, Slumberland has to take the top spot, as their delivery was not only well-executed but also their interaction with Nemo and significance is just too good to pass over for stock fantasy creatures.

Slumberland 2-1 Little Nemo

Category #4: Slumberland

Perhaps the most significant difference apart from the story and Nemo’s gender is their respective depictions of Slumberland, and their purpose. The Slumberland of Little Nemo‘s imagination is your standard fantasy kingdom. In it you can find a mixed assortment of creatures, palaces, and regions, attached with its own functioning government, transportation system, military, education system, and even seems to have adopted Christianity. The city proper gives off a very 19th-century World’s Fair vibe through its majestic architecture and cavalcade of lights and balloons; contrasted to its dark, dreary counterpart of Nightmareland and the barren wastelands surrounding it.

In Slumberland, the eponymous world, rather than being a political entity is reduced to an Inception-style network connecting multiple peoples’ dreams together, which Flip and Nemo arrive at through many ways: flying on Canadian geese, diving into toilets or crashing with baby truck drivers. The regions have very distinctive styles to them, such as the bionic-looking glass city or Agent Green’s office, fresh out of the disco era, London during WWII and just as its anime counterpart, Nightmareland is dark but located in the abyss of the ocean; in addition the Bureau of Subconscious Activities replaces King Morpheus as the main governing and judicial force. Somehow though, the film decides to up the ante and pull a Sword Art Online trick here: if you die in someone else’s dream, you die IRL too – but doesn’t advance much on that until the end, so it’s basically pointless.

I have to give Little Nemo credit for capturing the feel of wonder and magic in its depiction of Slumberland, as well as how much more functional its structure is, as opposed to the disordered chaos that comes with Slumberland in its very lifeless, too bureaucratic and realistic composition and how it seems that they took one too many pointers from Inception and just copied it into their production; it comes off as too unoriginal.

Little Nemo 2-2 Slumberland

Category #5: Music

This one’s a no-brainer, Slumberland wins by default. Little Nemo‘s repertoire imitates Broadway musicals, which makes sense since its composers, the famed Richard and Robert Sherman, specialized in those type of things. However, the end result was just unsuitable and I found them to be very grating to hear, save for two of them: the Boomps’ song and Farewell To Slumberland when Nemo leaves the place. Everything else seemed as if you took five Broadway musicians, locked them in a room and asked them to write a song without giving context to what it’s about (or vague details at best) and then tried to make a story using them. Meanwhile, Slumberland cuts out the vocal songs, and replaces it with orchestral music that at least manages to synchronize with the mystery and awe of the eponymous region, emphasizes its playful and dramatic moments, and reflects the film’s somber tone without going over the top.

Slumberland 3-2 Little Nemo

Category #6: Dialogue

The best way to describe Slumberland‘s dialogue is contemplative. Nemo and Flip’s conversations mainly revolve around their shared relationship, and is meant to convey a tender feeling of serious reflection as a coming-of-age film should. Little Nemo‘s dialogue comes off a bit clumsy at times: for example, at one point Little Nemo has the audacity to ask Professor Genius whether Princess Camille “is a girl”, and after King Morpheus’ kidnapping the former comforts Nemo by telling him that none of what had transpired was his fault, even though Flip had called him out earlier (to his credit, given the latter’s reputation it’s possible he believed he was being framed). But if there’s one thing it trumps Slumberland at, it’s conveying emotion. The characters here were very expressive and clear in their emotional intent, be it Little Nemo’s characteristic enthusiasm or the Nightmare King’s fearsome voice. Dialogue works best when it’s delivered with vitality, and Slumberland seems a little too constipated in conveying this, so for that Little Nemo gets the point here.

Little Nemo 3-3 Slumberland

Category #7: Story

All things considered, though Slumberland falls short on things like worldbuilding or the protagonists’ dialogue, it still comes up as the far better choice compared to its 33-year old predecessor. A huge part of this is because the story feels more mature and advanced when compared to the source material, which considering how non-sequitur it was, definitely made it a step up. Whereas the latter jumps from scene to scene and explains little, preferring to let the story tell everything and eschew context, Slumberland chooses to go deeper, enhancing its already consistent and sensible storyline with a worthwhile message and bits of character tension, which sees them develop and reveal bits about who they are, and what they believe for a satisfying conclusion and a heartwarming journey that has meaning. Most importantly, it treats its viewers as intelligent, and not just mindless drones that need a spark of pizzazz to their day.

Look, I get that Little Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland is supposed to be simple given its target audience, and I’ll commend that it incorporates plenty of elements from its original sources – time period, character designs and the flying bed. I’ll concede also that it’s a good anime to introduce children with to the medium. Critically however, that doesn’t excuse its flaked-out romance, shifty pacing, and the very loose coordination of purposeless action. Quality-wise, what did I learn from it? Nothing, except that this whole charade came about because Little Nemo felt sorry for stealing a pie from a fridge. Nothing too deep, as you can see; a far cry from Slumberland, a movie that is both fairly enthralling for all ages, and allows anyone to be immersed in Nemo and Flip’s meanderings while picking up a valuable message or two regarding your loved ones and what it means to be alive, without being scattered or cumbersome.

Final Score: Slumberland 4-3 Little Nemo

Final Words

I was surprised when I first learned about Slumberland, but even more amazed when I got to watching it last Christmas. Never would I have thought a film based on a franchise that nobody publicly demanded for, wasn’t remotely aware of, and wasn’t even close to materially replicating Windsor McCay’s work (for those old enough to remember), to be this wonderful, presenting a heart-striking story, is enlightening and doesn’t feel like a rushed acid trip akin to Little Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland. I think Windsor McCay (who died in 1934), if he were alive today, would be fairly pleased over knowing that someone cared enough about his work to elevate it to a higher degree.

2 thoughts on “East Meets West #25: Little Nemo .vs. Slumberland

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