Slumberland review: Netflix’s fantasy movie is a visual treat, but pulls its punches

Key information

– Lands on Netflix on Friday, November 18
– Directed by Francis Lawrence
– Written by David Guion and Michael Handelman
– Based on Little Nemo short story by Winsor McCay
– Stars Jason Momoa and Marlow Barkley
– Family-friendly fantasy-based adventure movie

Netflix’s original films are typically about as cinematic as an episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Yet, with a budget of $150 million to play with, Francis Lawrence, the director who steered the last decade’s biggest YA franchise in The Hunger Games (well, three-quarters of it) helms a fantastical and conceptually intriguing film adaptation of Slumberland, a visually-dazzling spectacle loosely based on an early 20th century comic strip by Winsor McCay.

Serving as a tween-friendly answer to Inception, Slumberland is one of those rare offerings worthy of gracing the big screen. Indeed, Lawrence ensures every cent is on display, even if this new Netflix movie is very – and we mean very – loosely associated with McCay’s original work. Apart from the main character names (although even the young hero is gender-flipped) and general theme of journeying into others’ dreams, this escapade bears little resemblance to the original’s flights of fancy. 

Slumberland stars relative newcomer Marlow Barkley as Nemo, a bright young girl whose idyllic life in an isolated island lighthouse is torn apart when her widowed father Peter (Kyle Chandler) goes missing at sea. While dealing with the trauma of being orphaned aged just 11, she’s shipped off to a Toronto high-rise apartment with her estranged uncle (somewhat bizarrely, Chris O’Dowd adopting a wayward American accent).

Slumberland contains many awe-inspiring CGI sequences. (Image credit: Netflix)

And the culture shock couldn’t be bigger. Whereas her adventurer dad regaled her with wondrous bedtime stories that allowed her imagination to run wild (see the shadows which suddenly move of their own accord), his brother is a dour doorknob salesman with no idea of how to connect with children. “I was the first schoolkid interested in door hardware,” he proudly boasts while showing off his collection to his understandably disinterested niece.

However, Marley soon gets the chance to escape her new humdrum existence during one night’s sleep when her creaky four-poster bed comes to life and transports her to an outlandish dream world. It’s here she meets the only other survivor from McCay’s comic strips, although again one that’s totally unrecognisable to those who grew up reading them. 

Instead of a cigar-chewing clown, Flip (Jason Momoa) is an elaborately-dressed satyr (essentially, a half-man, half-goat being) whose appearance and mannerisms run the gamut of movie mischief makers, from Beetlejuice and Mr. Tumnus to most obviously, Jack Sparrow. Should a sixth Pirates of the Caribbean ever materialise – unlikely as that is, given Margot Robbie’s recent comments on the matter – then producers need to look no further for Johnny Depp’s replacement.

Slumberland falls just short of flying high in the narrative department. (Image credit: Netflix)

Momoa appears to be having a blast as the self-described “troubling mix of father figure and pent-up masculinity” who teams up with Nemo to find a mythical wish-granting pearl. With his rippling muscles obscured by a prosthetic belly and pink velvet coat, the DC movie star (who’ll reprise his role as Aquaman in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom in 2023) has to rely much more on his natural charisma, comic timing, and willingness to play the fool. At one point he even breaks out into a sassy Beyoncé -style dance routine. 

It’s also Momoa who has to deliver the rather confusing exposition dump which even Christopher Nolan obsessives may find slightly confusing. What is clear, though, is that Marley can die in her own dreams without any real-life consequences. But should she succumb to the various perilous pitfalls in other people’s fantasy lands, then it’s game over in the physical world, too.

That gives Slumberland a far greater sense of jeopardy than the only other live-action take on McCay’s work, 1984’s bewildering Dream One (A slightly more precarious anime, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, arrived five years later). Such perils include the odd couple having to jump off a mountaintop onto a giant flying goose – a dream which the film amusingly states is Canada’s most common – outrun a lethal smoke monster, and evade a persistent ‘dream cop’ (Weruche Opia) who’s spent years trying to capture Momoa’s goofy livewire. 

Lawrence has just as much fun building the less hazardous aspects of his brightly-coloured otherworld. Opia’s Agent Green works for BOSA (Bureau of Subconscious Activity), an organisation operating from a labyrinthian headquarters where dreams are put into categories such as Oedipal and – perhaps the most nightmarish of them all – sitting for an exam you haven’t revised for. Flip and Nemo get to roam many of its more playful levels, too, from the art deco bathroom – whose toilet cisterns they crawl out of – to an exuberant Cuban ballroom whose guests consist entirely of fluttering butterflies.

Of course, as with every children’s caper, they also have to learn some valuable life lessons along the way. And it’s here where the film starts to falter. Slumberland surpasses expectations on an aesthetic front but its exploration of death, grief, and loneliness is so surface-level the intended emotional punches feel more like a light jab. Even a third act revelation about Flip’s real-world identity falls flat. A Spielberg-esque meditation on parental loss, this is not. 

And while younger viewers may initially be entranced by the parade of sweet-filled vending machines and chase scenes involving kid-driven monster trucks, the narrative ties itself up in so many knots they may find themselves drifting off before the bloated two-hour running time draws to a close. 

Still, Slumberland is undoubtedly an improvement on Netflix’s other recent PG-13 fantasies (see The School for Good and Evil, The Curse of Bridge Hollow). The committed performances from Barkley, who’ll next be seen in the umpteenth A Christmas Carol adaptation Spirited on Apple TV Plus, and a never-better Momoa means we’d be happy to see them returning for a sequel – even if we don’t expect this one to make our best Netflix movies list.

Slumberland arrives on Netflix on Friday, November 18.

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