This twist on Little Nemo is a muddled and sloppy mess.
Little Nemo is a property rife for play. The dream world of Slumberland is vast, its rules deliberately obtuse — it’s a wonderland full of slippery dream logic where its only limit is a child’s imagination. That Netflix’s spin on the 100-year-old tale should feel so dull and bloated is only the beginning of its problems.
The opening ten minutes show some promise as we meet 11-year-old Nemo and her father (Kyle Chandler) in their colorful and whimsical home in a lighthouse. The set is full of texture and charming clutter reminiscent of a Miyazaki film; it’s a world you instantly want to be in. Unfortunately, the plot immediately rips us away from here and ships us off to the land of CGI.
Nemo’s father dies in a tragic accident at sea, so she has to leave their little lighthouse and head to the city to live with her Uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd). Once there, Nemo realizes that when she drifts off to sleep, she can travel through the beautiful world of Slumberland, where she meets Flip (Jason Momoa), an old friend of her father’s. The two eventually decide to team up on an adventure that might bring Nemo’s dad back.
The beginning of Nemo’s journey into Slumberland should be the beginning of our journey into dreamy fantasy, but instead, we’re met with the cold, empty void of green screens. For some time now, Netflix has been hit with complaints about its poor CGI (and its over-reliance on it), and Slumberland is a prime example of all their worst impulses.
There are scenes where a CGI universe (and even then, a somewhat bland one) has been inserted behind the actors, but they have no idea how to engage with it. They’ll occupy this small corner of the set as if they were chained to a tiny stage instead of roaming free in a magical world. It honestly begs the question of whether or not the actors had any idea what was being animated in the background or if that was something Netflix decided it could just figure out in post.
Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire & Mockingjay) at least ensures most of his cast’s key players get a few moments to shine. As Flip, Momoa amps up his playful side, hoping to strike the same comedic balance as his predecessors like the Rock and Schwarzenegger. He more or less succeeds (though not on their level), delivering a few quips with the perfect amount of sarcastic wit. At his best, he’s charming and playful, and at his worst forgettable. Marlow Barkley as Nemo struggles to hit the film’s most emotional moments, but a sprinkling of jokes gives her comedic chops a chance to show real promise.
However, the best moments in the film belong to Nemo and her uncle. Despite an atrocious American accent, O’Dowd infuses Uncle Philip with an insecure tenderness (a moment when he’s shown Googling “how to raise a child” immediately makes the heart ache). But Slumberland never really figures out how to get to the emotional core here.
What Slumberland is missing is far more essential: clarity of intention with its cinema. We’re talking about the basic building blocks of filmmaking here. There are moments where the editing is so sloppy and the CGI so muddy it’s physically challenging to see and comprehend what’s happening on screen. Slumberland can play with all the dream logic it wants, but its audience still needs to know what they’re looking at and if any of these scenes will carry meaning.
What should have been an airy romp drags on a solid 40 minutes too long, with its transient moments of genuine brilliance scattered too few and far between.
Slumberland is now available on Netflix.
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