Inspired by the iconic Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips, Slumberland follows an 11-years-old girl named Nemo (Marlow Barkley), who one night discovers it’s possible to travel through dreams. In possession of a map that can guide people through other people’s dreams, Nemo joins the eccentric horned man known as Flip (Jason Momoa) as they journey to the Nightmare Sea, a dangerous place that holds the secret to making any wish come true. On paper, that’s a great concept, as Slumberland offers infinite possibilities of mind-bending locations and characters. Unfortunately, the movie sticks to just a handful of dreams for its entire runtime, and some are not even fantastic, resembling everyday places.
The few glimpses of magic we get in Slumberland are indeed beautiful to look at. Nevertheless, we can’t help but feel disappointed by the wasted potential of the movie, especially when McCay’s comic strips took us to so many wondrous places. Instead, the film adaptation revisits the same dreams multiple times, a decision that might have cut production costs but also prevented Slumberland from being as breathtaking as it could have been.
Slumberland‘s second big issue comes from the working of its magical universe. The movie takes its time to set the rules of Slumberland, and there’s no lack of exposition to underline how things work inside dreams. Even so, Slumberland’s script is still plagued with inexplicable coincidences and developments that contradict the principles it lays bare. Especially in the third act, the film throws caution to the wind and takes the story into weird places that will leave puzzled viewers trying to make sense of what they’ve seen.
The final sin of Slumberland is making it hard to care about all the metaphors the movie is trying to build. There is a central message about grief, the power of fantasy to numb our pain, and our need to accept reality to move on. But there’s also a discussion about loneliness and how dreams can promote an antisocial lifestyle. At the same time, Slumberland wants to defend the thesis that shared dreams help people get closer to each other, and a bit of fantasy can transform lives for the better. And in the end, none of these ideas gets the treatment they deserve. For the entire runtime of Slumberland, it feels like the movie is trying to do too much, all the while delivering less than we expect. This awkward pacing leads us to wonder if the progressive exploration of Slumberland wouldn’t be a better fit for a series format instead of a single feature.
Where Slumberland truly shines is with its cast. While Slumberland is one of Barkley’s first feature credits, along with Spirited, the young actress already shows she can deal with a huge range of emotions. And while Slumberland’s story can feel bloated, Barkley’s Nemo is the emotional anchor that holds everything together. The biggest surprise of Slumberland, though, is Momoa, who embraces a dad energy we didn’t know he had. Momoa has been type-cast dozens of times as a big and grim strongman, from Conan the Barbarian to Dune. But in Slumberland, he plays a whimsical man with a protuberant belly who’s constantly making faces and strange noises. Momoa is clearly having the time of his life, dropping puns, dancing salsa, honking like a goose, and bringing contagious joy into Slumberland. That alone is worth sitting through the two hours of the movie, which otherwise would feel outstretched.
Slumberland doesn’t bring anything new to the fantasy genre, playing around with familiar themes we’ve seen better polished elsewhere. On top of that, the movie’s script can feel bloated and confusing sometimes, as the rules of the magical land are broken to push the plot forward. Finally, Slumberland fails to amaze the audience by reusing the same dreams over and over again, even if some of them are too grounded instead of fantastic. However, despite all that, Barkley and Momoa are such captivating leads that they make it worth watching Netflix’s latest family-friendly adventure if you have two hours to spare and don’t mind the clichés.
Slumberland comes to select theaters on November 11, and will be available to stream on Netflix on November 18.