After the varying levels of success of “The Gray Man,” “Red Notice,” and “Extraction,” Netflix is once again throwing its proverbial hat into the blockbuster franchise ring with “Slumberland,” a new film based on Winsor McCay’s classic comic “Little Nemo in Slumberland” from the early 20th century. The weekly full-page, full-color strip, which has since been justifiably elevated to the level of a classic, features a little boy named Nemo and his fanciful, dreamtime adventures, each of which is interrupted by his awakening in the final panel. The question is: Will this movie be a wonderful dream… or will it lull audiences to sleep?
Clearly, Netflix isn’t taking any chances with this one. The production budget of “Slumberland” is a whopping $150 million, much larger than that of most streaming movies. Additionally, the film is helmed by Austrian director Francis Lawrence, who, with the last three “Hunger Games” movies, helped the stories of Katniss Everdeen and company gross a staggering US$ 2.97 billion worldwide. (He also directed “Red Sparrow,” but the less said about that, the better.) And the cast is led by the preternaturally charismatic Jason Momoa, with support from reliable character actors like Kyle Chandler and Chris O’Dowd. The only wild card— or cards, in this case— seems to be screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman, whose best-known credit is the disappointing threequel “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.” But everyone deserves a second chance, right?
The plot is simple enough (and given that this is a kid’s movie, it really should be): A gender-swapped Nemo (Marlow Barkley) finds herself in a dreamworld called Slumberland with her eccentric outlaw companion Flip (Momoa). Together, they embark on a series of wild and wonderful adventures in search of a magic pearl that will help Nemo reunite with her father Peter (Chandler), who was lost in a boating accident in the real world.
@palabastayo IT’S TIME TO DREAM ON! This holiday season Jason Momoa invites you on an adventure into the world of dreams. Slumberland comes to Netflix on November 18. #PalabasTayo #slumberland #jasonmomoa #netflix ##tiktoktrending #tiktokforyou #foryoupage ♬ original sound – PalabasTayo.com®
The acting in “Slumberland” is top-notch. Lead actor Barkley, a relative newcomer who will next be seen in “Spirited” (Apple TV+’s upcoming Christmas movie), looks uncannily like a young Saoirse Ronan, and has the talent to match. Her Nemo is spunky without being obnoxious, clever without being smug, and vulnerable without being sappy. Kyle Chandler, too, brings a soulful sweetness and gravitas to his relatively small role, especially in the early scenes establishing the central father-daughter relationship between Peter and Nemo. (Why, oh why isn’t this man a bigger star?) Chris O’Dowd, as Peter’s doorknob-obsessed brother, made me laugh and cry in equal measure. (Who knew this hilarious Irishman could: a) do drama so well, and b) speak in a convincing American accent?) And Jason Momoa is, as ever, very entertaining to watch. Playing against type (unpleasant, unkempt, and unattractive, with a pot belly to match), the “Aquaman” star is clearly having a blast in this film. (He should be grateful— as we all probably should be— that the producers didn’t go with a more faithful depiction of Flip, who is described in the source material as a “nine-foot tall creature that is half-man, half-beast, has shaggy fur and long curved tusks.”)
You would expect a movie half-set in a dreamworld to be overflowing with CGI; and while this one certainly is, it’s thankfully (for the most part) not overdone. Even the most magical, most fantastical scenes contain a “grounded” quality that emphasizes the peril. And it is a credit to the director and the entire creative team that in a film filled with dreams, it is their depiction of the real world that is most compelling. (As a brilliant directorial touch, a stuffed toy is subtly used— even up to the very last frame— to instantly signal to the audience which of these two worlds we are in at any given moment.)
It’s not all great, though. For one thing, the movie bears little resemblance to McCay’s original comics. For another, the story takes a little too long to get off the ground; this, of course adds to the film’s excessively long runtime. (Yes, I’m going to complain about this again. Producers, please take note: If your children’s movie is longer than 90 minutes, it is too damn long!) Also, some of the humor falls flat: the whole Canadian goose thing, for example, gets way too much screen time for what should have been a throwaway one-liner. Also, Jason Momoa can sometimes seem out of his depth, giving off the air of an actor playing eccentric rather than a character being eccentric.
But all in all, “Slumberland” is an enjoyable film, and far, far better than most Netflix-produced fare— especially the movies aimed at children. It’s a family-friendly fantasy that is so good, and ends on such a lovely, satisfying note, that it doesn’t need a sequel and probably shouldn’t get one. (But if you think that Netflix won’t make a sequel, then you’re obviously living in a fantasy world of your own.)
5 crowns: a must-see
4 crowns: excellent
3 crowns: good but not great
2 crowns: just about watchable
1 crown: avoid at all costs