Slumberland Review: Jason Momoa Headlines a Kids’ Version of The Sandman

Say the name “Nemo” to someone and they’ll probably think you mean the fish from the Pixar movie. In the absence of that, they will think of the vengeful submarine captain of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (EITHER League of Extraordinary Men.) But if your first association with “Nemo” is a little boy with big dreams, you know you’re talking to someone steeped in the worlds of animation, film, or comics. Winsor McCay’s early 19th century newspaper comic Little Nemo in dreamland it has inspired creatives from R. Crumb to Neil Gaiman, and from Federico Fellini to Maurice Sendak.

More recently, it inspired director Francis Lawrence (constantinethe final films in the Hunger Games franchise) and writing team David Guion and Michael Handelman (idiots dinner, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) to revisit the world of Nemo on Netflix, in a moving and visually rich production called Dreamland.

Dreamland it reduces the “lore” of the McCay comic strip to its most fundamental pieces. A good-hearted boy returns to a magical quest every time he falls asleep. They befriend a disreputable sidekick and seem to wake up every time the action reaches its climax. By the way, the choice to reduce McCay to the basics is a good one; his triumph was of form, not narrative, and the original little nemo comics are replete with overt racial stereotypes.

Nemo, in this modern incarnation, is Marlow Barkley (single parents), a young woman forced by the loss of her parents to leave her idyllic lighthouse at home and live with her extremely boring uncle with no equipment. She finds refuge in the titular Slumberland when she meets Flip (Jason Momoa), substantially reimagined from McCay’s openly racist, clown-like caricature of an Irishman. Momoa’s take on the character is a massive dreamy outlaw/hedonistic adventurer, all fangs, ram horns, clown shoes, fingerless gloves, shaggy hair and nail polish, topped off in an ombre pink trench coat. (Hats off to Trish Summerville, the costume designer for the Academy Award-nominated series Hunger Games.)

Marlow Barkley as Nemo and Jason Momoa as Flip in Slumberland.  They share a celebratory pose on the threshold of an open prison door.

Image: Netflix

Barkley plays the straight guy (or girl) in the relationship, while Momoa plays his Beetlejuice, via the cartoon incarnation of the character, which is to say where he’s Lydia Deets’s friend, not her antagonist. Flip is wild enough to make Nemo feel like he’s getting away with it, but not so extreme that he feels dangerously dangerous. Momoa plays Flip with obvious enthusiasm, in a clown performance that never feels like a’s. Without an ounce of shyness, he reuses the talent for strong poses that he brings to his DCEU version of Aquaman, using them for childish pranks instead. It’s Jason Momoa in perhaps his best father role yet, father body and all.

More impressive still, Momoa never outshines her diminutive co-star. It is one of the many ways that Dreamland it is finely balanced. Is it full of spectacle? Obviously: glass cities, underwater nightmares, Canadian geese the size of fighter jets. But Lawrence never puts on show for show’s sake, and the creativity of the environments never becomes more important to the eye than the action of the character.

It is funny? Yes: I laughed out loud more than once. But Dreamland It’s the rare action-packed family flick that doesn’t trade in pop culture references and sarcastic asides to tickle funny adults. Is there a lot of exposure? Yes, there is a foundation of in-universe dream rules and an antagonistic dream police bureaucracy in 1970s cosplay, both of which function as rails to keep the quest on course and provide obstacles to overcome. But Dreamland it never puts the world-building in front of its true center: Nemo, Flip, and the wet blanket of an Uncle Nemo, played by Chris O’Dowd in a third lead coming from behind.

Marlow Barkley as Nemo in Slumberland, sitting on her bed, wet hair, with her animated stuffed pig.  The bed floats on a calm ocean, illuminated by the nearly full moon and the northern lights.

Image: Netflix

Yes Dreamland It’s overkill in any category, it could be the length. While a full two hours is a forgiving length in this world of three-hour blockbusters, it can be difficult for the younger audience. And while Dreamland It never made me yawn, it made me check the playback timestamp and think, “God, 40 more minutes? How?”

The real pleasure to watch Dreamland it’s not in its inventiveness or originality, it’s a B on both fronts, but in the delight of simple themes played well by talented musicians, harmonized for greater resonance. I’m a big believer in family movies that strictly can’t be called “great” by any means, but where the filmmakers had the guts to go extremely weird. There’s a whole canon of movies like that, movies that feel like fever dreams when you look back on them years later.

Dreamland It may not really fall into that category, but it’s certainly closer to it than most of today’s blockbuster family movies. It’s a colorful fantasy, a moving moment, and the kind of weirdness that might get stuck in the head of a creative young viewer. That may be the element of the film that best suits McCay’s work: his centuries-old fantasies provided the seed for an idea that continues to blossom into beautiful dreams, generation after generation.

Dreamland is streaming on Netflix now.

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