Netflix ’s Slumberland is a weird addition to Francis Lawrence’s filmography that will entertain young children and send parents into a cozy slumber.
Children’s live-action fantasy stories are often underwhelming, more so than fantasy for adults or teens. Once in a while we get occasional hits like Harry Potter, Where the Wild Things Are, The NeverEnding Story, The Chronicles of Narnia, and more. Even then, though, half of these films either didn’t resonate with audiences, weren’t that good to begin with, or led to lukewarm sequels and spin-offs.
Why is this the case? You’d think with fantasy for kids it’d be easier to capture that sense of wonder that can awe even most adults. The original Harry Potter films did this flawlessly, yet even that same team doesn’t seem capable of recreating the same success today. Netflix has decent experience with children’s fantasy with the likes of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and their latest film Slumberland is here to prove if they can keep this record going.
Based on Winsor McCay’s comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” Netflix’s Slumberland follows a young girl named Nemo (Marlow Barkley, Amphibia) who embarks on a journey to hopefully see her late father again with the aid of eccentric outlaw Flip (Jason Momoa, See) after uncovering a secret map that leads to the dreamworld of Slumberland.
Slumberland is a far more complicated movie to dissect than you’d imagine. This is the case not because it’s a layered narrative with complex ideas, but because there is just way too much going on here. The film starts off with a genuine warm sense of adventure, as we’re introduced to Nemo and her relationship with her father Peter (Kyle Chandler, Super Pumped). You usually have to proceed with caution when it comes to child actors, but Barkley is a special talent that will hopefully go out to do great things. The material does not give her a lot to play with, though to the young actress’ credit she manages to elevate what’s on the page, particularly with Chandler and her onscreen uncle.
The major issue with Francis Lawrence’s latest outing is definitely the tone. We have Nemo developing a close relationship with her uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd, My Father’s Dragon), who becomes her parental guardian after Peter’s unfortunate passing. You’d expect for this to be the boring and emotionally manipulative element of the film, but that would be a wrong assumption to make. Instead, this is surprisingly the best part of the movie and we’re treated to some actual interesting themes for children to consume and digest. O’Dowd gives quite an impressive performance that, at times, feels it’s too good for a messy film without real focus.
So, if the core character dynamics are pretty good, what’s the problem with Slumberland? Well, on one hand we have an engaging family drama in the real world and on the other an obnoxious, uninspired dreamworld that often kills any kind of emotional momentum. The beautifully tragic themes with Nemo and her journey of mourning her father don’t always come through because we’re constantly cutting back to the chaotic Slumberland. It is clear Lawrence wanted to use dreams as a way to give Nemo an arc of overcoming her grief, but it just doesn’t work because both tones are so different from one another they feel like two movies stick together.
Jason Momoa is one of the most charismatic men in Hollywood and yet he feels out of place in this movie as well. It seems like he’s trying his best at a Jim Carrey impression and it simply does not work. I get the idea that Flip is supposed to be a man who refuses to let go and grow up, but it is too much and rather than making us like him you often find yourself wishing for Nemo to wake up from her dreams and follow her storyline in the real world.
It is fair to note how impressive Jo Willems’ cinematography pulls off some incredible visuals early on as Peter is telling his stories. Once Nemo is on her own and she enters the world of dreams, though, the film’s visual language becomes dull and unimaginative. This is shocking to see when not too long ago we witnessed such a creative and fresh take on the world of the dreaming in Netflix’s The Sandman. Yes, they’re two completely different stories with opposite demographics, but the comparisons are there if you wish to make them.
You have a little girl who used to live in a lighthouse with her father, who was an ingenious storyteller, and the best thing the film can offer is a shiny city made of glass and a ballroom filled with people made out of flowers. Granted, these dreams aren’t Nemo’s, but of other people in their slumber, although the original point still stands.
Back to some positives, because this opinion piece seems way more harsh than it actually is, Slumberland ’s heart is in the right place. Whatever concerns lie in this review, you have to keep in mind that it comes from an adult who can see through a film’s tonal and structural issues. For a child, though, this is a perfectly fine movie for young audience members to see with their families on a Saturday night. There is enough good for parents to be invested in, mostly the plot lines in the real world, and plenty of silly visuals for kids to laugh at and turn their brains off for two hours. Will every mom and dad stay awake for the entire duration of the film? That’s up to you to discover if you can avoid a nice slumber while your children watch Slumberland.
Slumberland is now showing in select US theaters and will be straming globally on Netflix on November 18, 2022.