In Netflix's Slumberland, Jason Momoa launches into Fun Dad

In Netflix’s Slumberland, Jason Momoa launches into Fun Dad

Say the name “Nemo” to someone, and they’ll probably think you mean the fish from the Pixar movie. Without it, they will think of the avenging submarine captain of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) But if their first association with “Nemo” is a little boy with big dreams, you’ll know you’re talking to someone steeped in the world of animation, film, or comics. Winsor McCay’s early 19th century newspaper cartoon Little Nemo in Slumberland has inspired creatives from R. Crumb to Neil Gaiman, and from Federico Fellini to Maurice Sendak.

More recently, it inspired director Francis Lawrence (Constantinethe latest films in the Hunger Games franchise) and the writing team David Guion and Michael Handelman (Dinner for Schmucks, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) to revisit Finding Nemo on Netflix, in a touching and visually rich production titled Slumberland.

Slumberland boils McCay’s comic book “lore” down to its most fundamental bits. A kind-hearted child returns to a magical quest every time he falls asleep. They team up with an unsavory sidekick and seem to wake up whenever the action reaches a fever pitch. By the way, the choice to boil McCay down to the essentials is a good one; his triumph was of form, not narrative, and the original Little Nemo comics are full of overt racial stereotyping.

Nemo, in this modern incarnation, is Marlow Barkley (Single parents), a young girl forced by the loss of her parents to leave her idyllic lighthouse and live with her extremely annoying and unequipped uncle. She finds refuge in the titular Slumberland when she meets Flip (Jason Momoa), vastly reimagined from McCay’s caricature of a racist, clownish bald Irishman. Momoa’s version of the character is a huge dreamy outlaw/hedonistic adventurer, all fangs, ram’s horns, clown shoes, fingerless gloves, shaggy hair and nail polish, topped off with a pink trench coat shadow. (I tip my hat to Trish Summerville, costume designer for the Oscar-nominated Hunger Games series.)

Marlow Barkley as Nemo and Jason Momoa as Flip in Slumberland.  They share a festive pose on the threshold of an open prison door.

Picture: Netflix

Barkley plays the straight man (or girl) in the relationship, while Momoa plays his Beetlejuice – through the cartoon incarnation of the character, i.e. where he’s Lydia Deets’ boyfriend, not his antagonist. Flip is just wild enough to make Nemo feel like she’s getting away with something, but not as extreme as he feels. dangerously dangerous. Momoa plays Flip with obvious enthusiasm, in a clown performance that never feels clownishish. Without an ounce of self-awareness, he reuses the talent for strong poses he brings to his DCEU take on Aquaman, using them for kid-friendly hijinks instead. It’s Jason Momoa in perhaps his most daddy role yet, daddy-bod and all.

Even more impressive, Momoa never eclipses her little co-star. It’s one of the many ways in which Slumberland is finely balanced. Is it full of show? Of course: glass cities, underwater nightmares, Canada geese the size of fighter jets. But Lawrence never puts on the show for show’s sake, and the creativity of the environments never becomes more important to the eye than the action of the character.

It’s funny? Yes: I sneered out loud more than once. But Slumberland is the rare action-packed family film that doesn’t trade pop culture references and sarcastic asides to tickle the odd adult. Is there a show charge? Yes, there is an in-universe dream rule foundation and antagonistic dream police bureaucracy in 1970s cosplay, operating as rails to keep the quest on track and provide obstacles to overcome. But Slumberland never puts world-building ahead of its true center: Nemo, Flip, and the wet blanket of an uncle of Nemo, played by Chris O’Dowd in a third lead from behind.

Marlow Barkley as Nemo in Slumberland, sitting on her bed, her hair wet, with her animated stuffed pig.  The bed floats on a calm ocean, lit by the nearly full moon and the northern lights.

Picture: Netflix

Whether Slumberland is excessive in any category, it may be length. While a full two hours is an indulgent amount of time in this world of three-hour blockbusters, it can be tough for younger audiences. And while Slumberland never made me yawn, it made me check the timestamp of the playback and think, “My God, another 40 minutes? How?”

The real pleasure of watching Slumberland is not in its inventiveness or originality – it’s a B on both fronts – but in the enjoyment of simple themes well performed by talented players, harmonizing for greater resonance. I’m a big fan of family movies that can’t be called “great” in any way, but where the filmmakers have had the guts to get extremely weird. There’s a whole canon of movies like that, movies that sound like fever dreams when called back years later.

Slumberland may not really fall into that category, but it certainly comes closer to it than most of today’s hit family movies. It’s a colorful fantasy, a heartwarming time, and the kind of weirdness that just might get stuck in the head of a creative young viewer. It’s perhaps the element of the film that best suits McCay’s work: his century-old fantasies provided the seed for an idea that continues to blossom into sweet dreams, generation after generation.

Slumberland is streaming on Netflix now.

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