Declaring what our dreams look like, if such a sweeping declaration can be made, is asking for trouble, but I can certainly put forth what I hope our dreams don’t look like: I hope they don’t look a thing like Slumberland. Director Francis Lawrence deadens and dulls Winsor McCay’s classic comic Nemo in Slumberland, updating McCay’s bright and groundbreaking early 20th century absurdity to modern VFX’s best-practice aesthetic—namely, “dark, and in a big room.” Slumberland’s loose adaptation is Disneyfied in plot and theme, and self-smothering of a feeble imagination that barely outpaces its images.
Slumberland’s Nemo (Marlow Barkley) lives an idyllic life running a lighthouse with her hot, bearded and cableknit widower dad Kyle Chandler. In the same kind of endearing yet inevitably tragic opening that comes pre-packaged into every children’s movie, Chandler’s perfect parental character is not long for this world. When he dies and Nemo is thrust into the care of her uptight urbanite uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd), she finds herself escaping time and time again into the dream world, where she can briefly pursue her father alongside a dream-being who was the co-star of many of her father’s bedtime stories.
This dream-being, Flip (Jason Momoa), is supposed to be the source of all the film’s energy. Momoa, who looks like Rob Zombie in a Willy Wonka costume, all but has this assignment written on his forehead. He’s growly and eccentric, with plenty of useless wibbly-wobbly Jack Sparrow tics, and has a little trouble talking through his Beauty and the Beast fangs. In fact, he looks a lot like Time Bandits’ pathetic Winston the Ogre, with his curled horns, talons popping from ill-fitting shoes, and constant emanating aura of pain. While Barkley is clearly out of her depth as our wide-eyed heroine, Momoa is equally ill-equipped to bring the Jack Black-like pop his karate moves, heel clicks and heroic poses try to generate. He’s just not silly—every gesture has a calculation to it that screams “Try-Hard Uncle” rather than “Literal Party Animal.”
He and Nemo team up to find a wish-granting MacGuffin (can’t make a movie about kids exploring dreams without some generic, artificial plot engine), which leads them through various manifestations of peoples’ subconsciousnesses as they pursue their own ends. It’s here you find the simple emotional beats you’d expect, about loss and escapism and growing up without losing your childlike wonder. They’re dropped with the same weight as the rest of the movie, heavily as falling out of bed.
Since there’s not much more to the story (Nemo starts skipping school, evading her life with Philip, to keep dreaming), all that’s left is the way that Lawrence and his effects team craft an uninhibited, anything-can-happen psychological world. And it’s depressingly paint-by-numbers. There’s certainly something uncannily familiar about the myopic emptiness of the environments, focused on the central pair to the detriment of detail. It makes sense for us to feel a little isolated—we’re in our own heads when we’re asleep, after all—but Slumberland’s boring loneliness extends past its nighttime adventures. Nemo’s stuck, slickly adrift on islands, in high-rise apartments, in hallways, and especially in the ever-shifting CG architecture of her dreams. It gives the impression of a kid whose parents decided that the best way to ensure an imagination was by bombarding them with an expensive array of toys. There was never a chance to be creative. That ethos certainly doesn’t make for a setting conducive to exciting action scenes, nor make the huge echoing dream-chambers ever feel like much more than warehouses with LED wallpaper.
The most visually intriguing scene, involving salsa dancers made of butterflies, is filmed in seemingly random medium shots and close-ups of Nemo. We get no sense of the dancers, their movements (or how their dance moves are impacted/enhanced by being flocks of bugs) or the reactions of Nemo and Flip. The scene just kills time, waiting for the fun to be sucked out along with the color, as a blue-tinged nightmare seeps in. There is no tension to Nemo being consumed by the overwhelming movement and majesty of these strange swarms—nothing that would logically or emotionally lead to the arrival of the ugly, smoky nightmare. It’s just shot, matter-of-factly, presented exactly like dreams are not.
It’s here that I’ll take issue with Slumberland’s depressingly mundane idea of what dreams can be. Outside of a select few ideas, darkness flattens its every concept until it’s derivative of Christopher Nolan’s cynical coldness. The ethereal smoke-octopus and butterfly-dancers (and a dolphins-under-the-aurora-borealis sequence so odd that it looks like Lisa Frank did Goya’s Black Paintings) are the few-and-far-between representatives of the organic world in a land mostly defined by its mechanisms. Despite what Inception may have you believe, our insides aren’t well-machined puzzle boxes or pre-visualized orchestrations of pop-up cityscapes. A glass-and-steel world of mathematics, fractals and dream cops only replicates the tech-happy surveillance state that Slumberland lightly observes in the waking world. It’s no coincidence that Philip makes his living selling doorknobs and locks, closing people up. But we’re not as confined as all this would have you believe, especially on the inside. We’re strange and messy, abstract and embarrassing—more like Everything Everywhere All at Once’s channel-flipping just-offness. Watching Flip and Nemo half-heartedly navigate retro offices, city streets, fancy bathrooms and pitch-black ocean floors leaves us just as empty as the kind of dream where you start your whole morning, only to wake up again.
Orienteering from an unsure script, Slumberland’s uninventive visual language dithers around in unreality while leaving its feet firmly planted in the saddest parts of the real world. Though O’Dowd lands his few dry jokes, his character is the only one asked to develop—and only then at the very last second, by leaps and bounds. It’s the sole moment of larger-than-life fiction in a movie that brings McCay’s famous walking bed sequence to soulless, golem-like life. Slumberland’s reality is vicious and consumptive (in a way far more serious than kids or parents may be expecting) and its dreams sadly follow suit.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: David Guion, Michael Handelman
Starring: Jason Momoa, Marlow Barkley, Chris O’Dowd, Kyle Chandler, Weruche Opia, India De Beaufort, Humberly González
Release Date: November 18, 2022 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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