Slumberland is loosely based on Winsor McCay’s comic strip ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland’, which was first published over a century ago. But whereas the original work of fiction was centred around a young boy’s adventures in the world of dreams and his friendship with a princess, this new Netflix adaptation, from Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, gender-swaps the protagonist and frames the plot around subjects that are the cause of real-life nightmares: death and grief!
These themes have been explored before in such family movies as Bambi, The Lion King, and Coco, so it’s not unusual to see such weighty subjects presented in stories that have been created for children. In this movie’s story, a young girl named Nemo (wonderfully played by Marlow Barkley) suffers the loss of her father (Kyle Chandler), who dies at sea during a fierce storm.
After her father’s death, Nemo is sent to live with her uncle (Chris O’Dowd), the owner of a doorknob business, but while he does his best to take care of her, he struggles to help Nemo deal with the feelings of grief she is experiencing. This is partly because he has never been a father himself and partly because he has never fully dealt with his own emotions after becoming estranged from his brother years before.
Nemo longs to be with her father again, a possibility that would seem impossible if it wasn’t for the fantastical world of Slumberland. This is supposed to be the place we all enter after falling asleep but after entering the world, Nemo discovers it’s a real place held together by the Bureau of Subconscious Activities (BOSA), a group of agents who give us the dreams we need to experience while making sure order is maintained within the dream world.
Soon after her initial journey into Slumberland, Nemo meets a roguish outlaw named Flip (Jason Momoa), an unusual character with horns on his head who is seemingly connected to her father. He promises to reunite them but for this reunion to happen, Nemo learns that she needs to find the magical pearls that will give her this opportunity. Unfortunately, the pearls are located in the dark expanse of the Sea of Nightmares so getting to them won’t be easy!
Flip joins Nemo on her quest, a mission that is made more hazardous because they have to enter the dreamlands of others. Flip warns Nemo that if she dies in these dreams, she can’t go back to her waking life, so the stakes are high when she navigates the fantastical worlds that sleeping dreamers are experiencing.
These dream sequences include a hair-rising drive through a glass city, a sky-high experience on the back of a giant duck, and a party within an extravagant ballroom that is populated by people who are made entirely of butterflies. Such sequences are mostly well-realised, with a fine mix of visual effects and practical sets that bring the dream worlds to life. There are occasional moments when it is clear that the performers are acting against a green screen backdrop but children, entranced by the world Nemo explores, are unlikely to make the same observations as their parents.
Momoa is fun as the mischievous Flip and he manages to give a believable and sensitive performance, despite the fantastical nature of his character. Barkley is equally as good as his younger companion and on the strength of her performance here, it can be assumed that she will go on to have the movie career of her real-life dreams.
The surrounding cast excel in their roles too, from O’Dowd as Nemo’s reserved and awkward uncle to Weruche Opia (I May Destroy You), who takes on the role of Agent Green, a BOSA employee, who has been hunting Flip for decades because his dream-hopping actions are threatening to destabilize the world of Slumberland.
The decent special effects and impressive performances do much to immerse us into the fantastical world of Slumberland and there is much fun to be had as we watch Flip and Nemo travel from one dream to the next. But while the movie is funny and exciting at times, we are constantly reminded of the reason behind Nemo’s mission and it’s this that gives the movie its emotional core.
As such, we know that this is far more than just a fun rollercoaster ride through a bunch of people’s dreams. It’s the quest of a grieving young girl who aches to be with the father she lost in an incredibly tragic way. Her grief will be something many of us can relate to and it’s the reason why we can connect to her plight, even though the magical world she gets to inhabit is one far removed from our realities.
It’s because the movie deals with some pretty heavy themes that it might be unsuitable for children experiencing their own grief. Nemo is given the chance to reconnect with her father again but children who know they will never get that opportunity might struggle with the fanciful nature of the plot. As such, this might be a movie that some parents approach with caution. That being said, the movie could still be used by any parent wanting to raise the subject of death with their kids as it contains a few useful messages about letting go of grief and moving on.
Slumberland is an enjoyable movie for both kids and adults, with moments that will evoke a lot of laughs and the occasional tear. As such, this can be recommended for most families wanting to watch an entertaining fantasy movie that has a little more depth than others of its kind. It’s not perfect – the writing is sometimes exposition-heavy – but thanks to the imaginative visuals and moving story, the minor flaws within the movie are unlikely to keep us awake during times when we should be experiencing dream worlds of our own.
Read More: Slumberland Ending Explained
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