So newspaper comic week doesn’t leave many film related options. And the ones it does leave aren’t exactly…great. The Spirit. Garfield. You get the idea (holy shit I just realized I should’ve watched that Bill Watterson documentary and now I’m disappointed). Anyways, among my limited options – Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. Which honestly wasn’t even on my radar. But I like Winsor McCay, so I figured I’d give it a try. It’s a weird little Japanese made American version of Winsor McCay’s brilliant comic strip. Like I said I had no expectations going in. However it started to pique my interest before it even started. “Written by Chris Columbus.” That’s a name. People like his movies (Goonies, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, and the first two Harry Potter movies). None of them are fabulous, but many are competent. But what really caught my eye came after that “story by Jean Moebius Giraud.” Wait what? Moebius worked on this. Sweet. Then everything got weirder. “Story Consultant: Robert Towne.” So Moebius and the writer of Chinatown worked on a Winsor McCay adaptation? What the flying fuck was I about to watch? Oh and also Brian Froud and Moebius designed most of this movie. The credits dropped that fact pretty casually. So that’s a weird project. I have to admit I went from having no thoughts on the film to being pretty excited before it even started.
Oh, forgot one credit. “Concept for screen: Ray Bradbury.” What. How.
Then the movie finished. Basically the end credits stopped. I speedily shut down VLC before the sing-along versions of the musical numbers played, and sat, thinking to myself. Had I just watched a good movie?
Well, yeah, I actually think so. Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland was pretty good.
The plot itself is basically a fairy tale structure. Lets talk Vladimir Propp’s fairy tale structure (edited but from Wikipedia naturally):
ABSENTATION: A member of a family leaves the security of the home environment.
INTERDICTION: An interdiction is addressed to the hero (‘don’t go there’, ‘don’t do this’). The hero is warned against some action (given an ‘interdiction’).
VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale). This generally proves to be a bad move and the villain enters the story, although not necessarily confronting the hero. Perhaps they are just a lurking presence or perhaps they attack the family whilst the hero is away.
RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc.; or intended victim questions the villain).
DELIVERY: The villain gains information about the victim. The villain’s seeking now pays off and he or she now acquires some form of information, often about the hero or victim. Other information can be gained, for example about a map or treasure location.
TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim’s belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim). The villain now presses further, often using the information gained in seeking to deceive the hero or victim in some way, perhaps appearing in disguise.
COMPLICITY: Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy.
VILLAINY or LACK: Villain causes harm/injury to family member.
MEDIATION: Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc./ alternative is that victimized hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment). The hero now discovers the act of villainy or lack, perhaps finding their family or community devastated or caught up in a state of anguish and woe.
BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action. The hero now decides to act in a way that will resolve the lack, for example finding a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise defeating the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero as this is the decision that sets the course of future actions and by which a previously ordinary person takes on the mantle of heroism.
DEPARTURE: Hero leaves home;
FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc., preparing the way for his/her receiving of a magical agent or helper (donor);
HERO’S REACTION: Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary’s powers against him);
RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
GUIDANCE: Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
STRUGGLE: Hero and villain join in direct combat;
BRANDING: Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
VICTORY: Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
LIQUIDATION: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed);
RETURN: Hero returns;
PURSUIT: Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
RESCUE: Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: Hero unrecognized, arrives home or in another country;
UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: False hero presents unfounded claims;
DIFFICULT TASK: Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
SOLUTION: Task is resolved;
RECOGNITION: Hero is recognized (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
EXPOSURE: False hero or villain is exposed;
TRANSFIGURATION: Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc.);
PUNISHMENT: Villain is punished;
WEDDING: Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).
Propp spent a lot of time studying the recurring patterns in Russian folklore, and those are the 31 story beats he believed existed at the core of the fairy tale.
Now Little Nemo skips over many of these, and simply comes close to some of them, (There’s no “Reconnaissance”, the “Wedding” comes along with the “Interdiction”, the film ends after the “Return”) but generally Propp’s steps seem to apply to the film. What the movie actually does really well is take this fairy tale style and non-reality and inject it with some actual stakes and unspoken rules. Despite nominally being set in a world with no rules the film manages to use clever tricks like visual call-backs and recurring motifs and specific limitations to make sure the dream world never relies on Deus-Ex-Machina or lucid dreaming or anything like that. Not only that but it takes scenes that might serve as terrible interludes in a normal kids film (comedic dancing) to generate tension (oh no they can’t hear me over the dancing). None of it’s brilliant, but it is a shockingly functional take on concepts that tend to challenge writers.
Take, for instance, Nemo’s bed. In the pre-title sequence, Nemo flies through a ruined city on his bed, unable to control it. The next dream he has sees him entering Slumberland, and after that every time he “wakes up” it’s quickly established as part of the dream. The first time his bed serves as a boat, getting him back to Slumberland in time to start his quest. The time after that he uses his bed as a plane, flying towards his goal. Is it a little nonsensical? Sure. But there’s enough sense of progression and consistency to make it feel at least fairly earned.
I want to make it clear my fondness for this movie isn’t simply a result of my personal druthers. It actually does many things very well. The characters are simple but consistent, the plot never really lags, the racism of the source material is dialled back (though ironically played by Mickey Rooney), and the musical numbers are stomachable. The less said about the original songs on the soundtrack the better. You can’t rhyme “Slumberland” with “Joy’s without number land” – it’s not allowed. It’s like that Bo Burnham joke, “Have you ever stopped to watch a bluebird drop from a tree, and take to the air? / Me neither / Have you ever took time out to finish a rhyme but the right words just weren’t there / Meat cleaver,” played straight. Unacceptable. That’s one of the film’s few dark spots though.
The movie also looks delightful. It absolutely exudes Moebius cum Winsor McCay. The line work in the background, the costumes, the critters all look like they were ripped from the love child of The Airtight Garage and Little Nemo. There’s even a cameo from Gertie the dinosaur. The few designs that don’t look like Jean Giraud’s handiwork absolutely look like the also fantastic Brian Froud’s style (Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal!). Especially the friendly shift-shaping goblins (basically the “Receipt of a Magical Agent” part) that the characters meet in the film’s later half.
The movie’s not perfect, naturally. Like many a kid’s movie, the ultimate lesson is a little trite, the main character’s a little bland, and the supporting cast are relegated to entertaining single-notes. However the script is honestly a pretty impressively functional and entertaining affair, well worth the time. Plus any fans of Moebius will get a kick out of the film’s visual stylings. It even does a pretty great job at adapting Winsor McCay’s comic strip.