LITTLE NEMO: ADVENTURES IN SLUMBERLAND – (1989)
Director: Masami Hata, William T. Hurts
Starring: Gabriel Damon, Mickey Rooney, Rene Auberjonois, Laura Mooney
Screenplay by: Chris Columbus, Richard Outten, Jean Giraud, Yutaka Fujioka
In 1905, an artist named Winsor McCay released the first Little Nemo comic strip in William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, The New York American. It was a whimsical, surreal strip starring the young Nemo’s repeated attempts to join the King of Slumberland, a King Morpheus, and his daughter, Princess Camille, to essentially hang out, have fun, and be awesome. Something would always go wrong, however, forcing Nemo to wake up back in the real world, where his parents would console or admonish his sleeping habits.
McCay, being the badass dude he was, helped define the art of animation and film in general as well. He often single-handedly hand-drew thousands of frames of animation to bring them to life, creating animated works of not only his Little Nemo creation, but also famous cartoons such as Gertie the Dinosaur (predating live-action/animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit some seventy years) and The Sinking of the Lusitania. You can’t say the mofo didn’t have some serious work ethics.
And here we are with the Japan/American collaboration Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, the first “anime” to have a theatrical release in the United States. It had a troubled production (Hayao Miyziaki and Ray Bradbury were slated to work on this film) and didn’t do too well upon release; however, it made a killing on its VHS release. So, was the success of the home market warranted?
NOSTALGIC LENS: Not a damn thing, to be honest. At least with the other movies, I remembered some key scenes, some voices, or some bits of dialogue. But every bit of this movie was blocked out my mind, which made me think that I hated it at some level, even though I KNOW I re-rented it thousands of times. I wasn’t jumping at the chance to see it again. I remember the hard-as-balls Nintendo video game more than the movie!
DOES IT HOLD UP: Here’s a math lesson for you: Little Nemo = Spirited Away + Pan’s Labyrinth.
Spirited Away was a delightful, soft but immensely watchable film, while Pan’s Labyrinth’s darker but engaging elements seemed to appeal to most audiences (although not me personally; I had my issues). Both played within the concepts of dreams and imaginations; of escapism versus responsibility, remaining a child versus growing up. Both are rich with content, and sad yet hopeful in tone. Both those movies’ flaws are fixed in Little Nemo; although I sure can’t say that Little Nemo didn’t have a few flaws of its own. Still, it’s interesting, fun, and definitely a hoot; I can see why I watched this multiple, multiple times.
Little Nemo begins with no hesitation; an animated summary of what you will get later on, in full (after the credits):
From a breezy, enjoyable, aerial bed-ride, to a death-defying train chase sequence, Little Nemo is a movie that goes from a glowing, blissful, heaven-like cornucopia of fun to a freaking perilous, dangerous, slightly confusing foray through a hellish realm. In other words—dreams versus nightmares. So have a good night sleep. Mwahaha.
Movies that involved children and fantasy realms INEVITABLY involve some sort of neglect from the parental unit, and this is no exception. Nemo’s papa ignores his son’s enthusiasm over a local parade and circus in town. His mother scolds him over eating pies before bed. His only friend is a flying squirrel named Icarus (to be fair, Icarus is pretty damn loyal). Upset, he falls asleep, where he is whisked away by Professor Genius (uh… seriously?) and Bon Bon by a “dirigible” to the delightful world of Slumberland. (Nemo actually says the word “dirigible”. Not zeppelin. Not blimp. Fucking dirigible. Man, that just takes you out the movie.)
Slumberland is filled with variations of the characters taken from the parade that Nemo had watched that morning, including King Morpheus, Flip, and Princess Camille. Why does everyone want him here? Why, to rule Sumberland, of course. To play and have fun and just be awesome! Train rides, chariot rides, flying-tube-with-balls rides; this place has it all! Well, everything that the real world fails at.
Of course, it’s all in Nemo’s mind, and understanding that actually gives the movie a good thematic element. As far as I’m concerned, pre-adolescence is a much more complicated time than being a teenager. High school concerns are mostly artificial and, well, stupid. Preteens, however, begin the glimpse into adulthood without understanding it. Responsibility, for example, is a word that usually means rewards or allowance; but something about it implies serious character growth. The body changes; opinions about the opposite sex become more pronounced; rules become more commonplace as you seek to explore the world around you; and so on.
In Nemo’s dreamworld, he is smothered with the attention he thinks he didn’t receive from his parents; he finds friends and delves lightly into the “sexual” through his feelings towards the Princess. Hell, he’s given the key to Slumberland and made heir to the throne. The responsibilities he feels he deserves are thrust upon him!
Which also includes the “bad” stuff. His dreams push him to the annoyances of human social development, which intrigued me personally; to see his mind force him through “the rules of etiquette” was a dramatic touch. Still, he wants to play and have fun and be naughty, all embodied through Flip. Voiced wonderfully by Mickey Rooney, Flip instills all the mischievous instincts into Nemo’s mind, including opening the door to Nightmareland, just through morbid curiosity.
All hell breaks loose, which leaves Nemo on a personal quest to save things. This great scene reflects his guilt by comparing his use of the key on the door of the Nightmare King to an earlier scene of him breaking a promise to steal his mother pies:
I could spend forever utilizing a Freudian analysis of this movie and the filmmakers depiction of the id and dreams and so on. I’ll leave that to the comment section.
I think, however, my main issue would be towards the end, as he and his team of friends go to fight the Nightmare King. The dream/real life parallels seem to dissipate into a generic fantasy adventure, involving good goblins called Oompahs and something about a magic royal scepter (although, it is a phallic object… more Freudian debate!) Not that I didn’t like what occurred at the end; it was fun, scary and rewarding. However, what if the Nightmare King was some sick variation of his neglected father? Or worse—of Nemo himself? That would have been something.
IN A NUTSHELL: It’s a nice, short film that’s beautifully animated and smooth, and quite rich in story, content, symbolism, etc. The voice work is great, if they don’t match up with the lip syncing in a couple of scenes. But overall, I enjoyed myself a lot more than I thought I would, and seeing Princess Camille just DECK Flip with a mean right hook was pretty badass. If you have an hour to kill, just watch the thing on Youtube.
August 10th: Tiny Toons Adventures: How I Spent My Summer Vacation
August 17th: An American Tail