Drew does Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland

“I am a professor. I am a genius. You may call me Professor Genius.”

The Scoop: 1989 G, directed by Masami Hata and William T. Hurtz and featuring the voices of Gabriel Damon, Mickey Rooney and Rene Auberjonois

Summary Capsule: A young boy in pajamas is lured from his parents’ house with cookies and the promise of visiting a wonderful dream world by an old bearded man. Typical kids’ stuff.

Drew’s Rating: “Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”

Drew’s Review: It’s no secret I’m a big comic book fan. What’s less known is that I’m also really into classic comic strips. By “classic,” I mean those that were either innovators of the medium or just incredibly well executed in terms of art and story. Little Nemo in Slumberland qualifies on both counts, as well as on the basis of sheer age, by which I mean it’s old as dirt. Peanuts? Pfah – a virtual newbie in comparison. Little Orphan Annie? Dick Tracy? Getting warmer, but you’re still a couple of decades late. Little Nemo debuted in 1905, barely ten years after the Yellow Kid ushered in the newspaper comic strip; but where the Kid’s world was crude, dirty, and all too real, Nemo’s adventures took him through untold fantasy worlds, lavishly illustrated and meticulously colored.

No surprise, then, that many years later a famous Japanese producer would see it as an ideal vehicle for the full-length animated film he yearned to make. He probably didn’t foresee all the problems the production would encounter over more than a decade, but eventually his dream was realized when Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland was released in Japan in 1989 and the U.S. in 1992. At which point it became clear that… nobody remembered Nemo or cared about his adventures. The film flopped massively and the producer (Yutaka Fujioka) retired soon afterward. BUT! It was eventually released on DVD, so here we are to answer the question: does Nemo live up to its source material in scope and entertainment, or were audiences right to give it a wide berth?

Nemo is your typical western-child-as-envisioned-by-the-Japanese, which is a nice way of saying he’s a harmless dreamer with a pet flying squirrel that talks to him. The “dreamer” aspect comes into play when he falls asleep and is invited to Slumberland to be a playmate to King Morpheus’ daughter, as well as to be officially named the king’s heir. In the real world this would smack of “my daughter’s a bow-wow, suck it up and marry her and the kingdom’s yours”; but this is a fantasy land, so naturally she’s beautiful AND Nemo becomes the heir. But he also falls in with Flip, resident delinquent and ne’er-do-well, who convinces Nemo to open the one forbidden door in the entire kingdom. Doing so enables the Nightmare King to seep in and establish a foothold in Slumberland, and before you know it Nemo must undertake a quest to find the royal scepter, defeat the Nightmare King, and restore order to the land. Because nothing says “I’m sorry” like rescuing someone from danger they never would’ve been in if you hadn’t come along.

As one might expect from a Japanese movie that took 10+ years to make, the animation is a cut above the norm for the time, though not ridiculously so; as I recall, this was around the time Disney hopped back on the animation train big time. The voice acting is neither so horrible it took me out of the film nor so great that I specifically noticed it… the standard, basically. The plot is pretty paper thin (ordinary kid singled out for greatness, screws up, redeems self by fixing problem, happy ending SPOILER), but it’s a children’s movie, so I can’t fault that. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about the horned, bat-winged Nightmare King — he’s a generic animated kids’ movie villain who could just as easily have been menacing Rainbow Brite or the Care Bears or Voltron — and the other characters are pretty archetypal as well, though Flip is a bit more douchey than your average trickster sidekick in a children’s film. And since I know you’re wondering, the big “acceptable in the ’80s, would never pass muster today” component of this film is smoking. Flip is almost never seen without a stogie in nearly every scene he’s in, even after being forbidden by royal decree. He’s the surgeon general’s nightmare king.

The only other element of note is the ending. I don’t think it’s spoiling much to reveal that Nemo wakes up in his bed and wonders if the whole thing was a dream. What’s odd is that in most films of this sort, there’d be some little wink to the audience to hint that maybe it really happened after all. Not so here — like The Wizard of Oz, we’re left to conclude that apparently it was all a dream. And that’s a good analogy for how I feel about Little Nemo as a whole. Like a dream, it was whimsical and fun, entertaining enough, perhaps slightly unfulfilling; but once it ended it began to fade from my mind, so that soon I’ll be able to recall only the faintest of details. This one’s recommended for viewing if you can find a cheap copy, or for the other two of you who are fans of really old comic strips. (See you guys at the convention this summer! In my garage!)

This scene kinda weirds me out. FYI, they don't have clothes on under those, uh... cotton balls. Maybe every 10-year-old boy dreams of being naked with two girls and a squirrel?

Intermission

    • Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland debuted in 1905. The early strips always involved King Morpheus sending for Nemo to be a playmate for his daughter, and Nemo embarking through Slumberland toward the castle; he would invariably encounter some trouble and awake crying in the last panel, whereupon his parents would scold him for waking up the house. While occasionally humorous, the theme of “Little Nemo” was dark fantasy, with a protagonist whose name translates to “nobody” and lush, amazingly surreal art that pushed the boundaries of the medium in ways rarely attempted since. (It was a Sunday-only strip, and at the time each Sunday strip would occupy a full newspaper page, giving McKay plenty of room to experiment.) The strip ran from 1905-1911, then switched newspapers and was retitled “In the Land of Wonderful Dreams” from 1911-1914. A critical but not a commercial success, it enjoyed a brief revival from 1924-1927 under its original title.
    • Capcom released an NES game called “Little Nemo: The Dream Master” in 1990, based on the film. However, since the movie didn’t receive a U.S. release until 1992, most Americans who played it had no idea it was based on a film! (On a sidebar, I remember renting and loving that game. It was also the first instance I can recall of me swearing vehemently at a video game. It would not be the last.)
    • Pay attention to the circus parade Nemo attends at the beginning of the movie — most of the characters in it resemble the people Nemo later encounters in Slumberland, just in different outfits.
    • There’s a vein of innocent sleaziness pervading the film that you really only get with anime. Aside from the “clothes got wet, have to wear puff balls till we dry off” bit, there’s a montage where Nemo gets his face stuck in his dance instructor’s bosom. Also, when Flip catches the princess as she falls back after being attacked by goblins, his hands are clearly cupping her, uh, upper lady parts. No wonder she gets pissed.

Oh, you just made a redhead mad. So unwise.

  • The Imp is the only major character from the comic strip not to be included in the film, due to having been a racial caricature.

Groovy Quotes

      Professor: I am a professor. I am a genius. You may call me Professor Genius.

Nemo: Who was that, Professor?
Professor: Flip! A frightful fellow.
Nemo: Flip?
Professor: Please, forget you ever heard that name.

Nemo: You’re Flip! A frightful fellow.
Flip: That’s right! I’m frightfully funny, frightfully friendly and I can make all your dreams come true.

Nemo: What are you wanted for?
Flip: Having fun.
Nemo: Having fun?
Flip: Yeah, they don’t like it when you have fun here. Heh.

Nemo: This looks like the door that the king warned me about.
Flip: What do you mean?
Nemo: He gave me this key and told me not to open the door with that symbol on it.
Flip: Hmm… let’s open it.

Nightmare King: Ooooh… pajamas do scare me so. Wahahahahah!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • Fantasia
  • Labyrinth
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