Little Nemo – Adventures in Slumberland: A Breezy Dream with Realistic Flaws

(My apologies for such a late post. I shall try to avoid this in the future. Still, I did my best to keep to my word about having a post on the 22nd.)

Back in 1905, a cartoonist named Windsor McCay started a comic strip that would become one of the earliest influential works in the medium of comics. He created a comic strip called Little Nemo in Slumberland. The concept was simple: it followed the adventures of Nemo, a pajama-clad boy who goes on adventures through the wondrous Slumberland after being summoned by King Morpheus. The series was packed with colorful visuals and an interesting assortment of characters, from the very serious Dr. Pill to the cigar-chomping clown Flip, but it cemented itself as such a force by way of McCay’s experimentation. He played around with coloring and panel layouts, allowing him to twist and bend his Art Nouveau visuals for full effect. He even had a post-modern element to his stories, with characters handling and interacting with panels or comic strip text long before our current concept of post-modernism came to be. Such a striking and original work in the early years of its medium allowed it to gain a rich legacy, becoming an influence not only to comic book writers like Neil Gaiman and Robert Crumb but also to filmmakers like Federico Fellini and authors like William Joyce. It only seems fitting that someday there would be an animated movie based on the legendary comic strip, especially considering McCay’s own work in animation. Thus, in 1989 (a good 84 years later), there was a movie made jointly between Japanese and American animation studios with a veritable roster of talent. The result was Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, a fun take on the material even if it’s a bit so-so in some of the content.

Based loosely upon the original comic strip, the film follows Nemo, who falls asleep after a day of witnessing a circus parade and attempting to sneak a night-time treat of a slice of pie despite his mother’s warning. Finding himself greeted by a colorful visiting party and the somewhat smug Professor Genius, he is brought to Slumberland and informed that he is to become the new playmate of Princess Camille. Along the way, he ends up becoming caught up in the hijinx of local mischief maker Flip, only to find the Nightmare King unleashed. Having to own up to his own mistakes, Nemo sets forth to take down the Nightmare King and restore order to Slumberland.

On the whole, the film is rather fun to watch. Though it doesn’t quite capture the same visual splendor as McCay’s work, the movie still showcases Slumberland as a circus-like labyrinth of city streets and a candy-colored palace of wonders. Also, while it might not capture the same puzzling madness and dream logic as its source material, this does a good job in capturing the pace and flow of a dream. Bounced around like a pinball as he moves from moment to moment, Nemo’s adventures flow effortlessly between episodes. From training for a royal life to fleeing from bumbling cops to bouncing across floating balls, the pace captures the feel of a dream, which can change between two instants without explanation yet feel completely natural. It also adds to the impact of such a dreamscape by showing part of Nemo’s life before he goes on his dream adventures. It helps to not only root Nemo a bit more by showing us his normal world first, but also shows the influence of it upon his dreams. The aesthetic of Slumberland and its many inhabitants are clearly inspired by the circus parade he witnesses, such as King Morpheus baring a resemblance to the parade’s ringmaster. These are good touches to go along with a movie that captures the feel of a fun dream, but there are some faults that bring it down to reality.

I had mentioned earlier that there was a veritable roster of talent that had served on this film. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata had taken turns as directors, Brad Bird had done some work as an animator, Chris Columbus did some work on the script, and Robert and Richard Sherman wrote songs. Even famous author Ray Bradbury had a hand in the script. It is not like all of them were involved with the project at the same time, however. They were among many who went in and out of the project since it began in 1982. As a result, the movie feels like it was made by committee to a certain degree, pieced together from the many versions and drafts that went through the mill. This also shows in details like the inclusion of Icarus, a flying squirrel and pet for Nemo who was never in the original comic strip and feels made to be a copy of Disney sidekick characters. Not only that, such a character makes the normal world feel slightly more cartoonish and unreal, when it should be more grounded in comparison to Slumberland. Such flaws dampen what could have been a great tribute to a legendary piece of work.

Still, even with the by-committee feel, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland is a fun watch. It slipped between the cracks in the wake of The Little Mermaid and the birth of the Disney Renaissance when it was first released, but it manages to have a fun story that captures the mercurial flow of dreams and some of the whimsy of Windsor McCay’s original comic. If you’re curious about this animated adaptation, it is available on Blu Ray and DVD. For those who want to visit the original Windsor McCay work and see what had made such an impact many years ago, there are several volumes of Little Nemo in Slumberland printed, along with a complete (if pricy) collection of the whole series. If a more modern version captures your eye, IDW released a new comic book called Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland. Centered around a modern-day boy named Nemo, the limited series will be released as a trade volume on September 25th as of the time of this post.

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