The Netflix fantasy feature Slumberland (2022) is based on the comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland” which was created by the American cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay in 1905. In this exquisitely drawn psychedelia, Nemo is a boy who embarks on fantastic adventures in his dreams. It’s a flow of subconsciousness at its finest, and it contains no moral lesson.
Written by David Guion and Michael Handelman, and directed by Francis Lawrence, Slumberland has a story to tell and a lesson to teach. Nemo is a girl played by a dependable, but uneventful Marlow Barkley. After losing her dad (Kyle Chandler) at sea, Nemo retreats into the dreamworld as a way to process her grief. There, she meets Flip (Jason Momoa), a Satyr-like creature who helps Nemo see her dad one more time.
By abandoning the original surrealism of a dream for a structured narrative, Slumberland subjects itself to an inevitable comparison with Inception (2010), Inside Out (2015), and other films that analyze the inner workings of the mind from a professional standpoint. It stops being the fantasy world of a child and becomes a 150 million USD session with a child psychotherapist. Nemo’s life with her dad is pure saccharine bliss, modeled after an OTC drug commercial. It is a lazy solution that takes away from the authenticity of Nemo’s journey.
The longer we travel through Slumberland, the more it looks like a story of her uncle Philip and his unfulfilled desires. The all-white male trio at the helm of this mega production clearly relates more to the struggles of a man-child Philip/Flip than those of a token orphaned girl. Slumberland takes a page from Fight Club’s book by making a macho dream-crasher Momoa to be an alter ego for a dull doorknob salesman portrayed by Chris O’Dowd. Whether this casting reflects certain implicit racial bias depends on your perspective. Momoa does his best to act bonkers and eventually succeeds in his Johnny Depp for Tim Burton impersonation.
Slumberland excels in creating seamless and visually impressive dream sequences. Unfortunately, these dreams are assigned to an ethnically diverse group of people, based on tired stereotypes and frivolous presumptions. Apparently, there is only one thing a Spanish-speaking, Catholic nun dreams about, and it is dancing salsa with a horned and horny Flip. A black man’s persistent dream is to be stuck in a spacious, white bathroom. The cultural insensitivity of Slumberland is discreet and can be easily overlooked in the CGI extravaganza.
In this fantasy, we are floating in the veteran director Francis Lawrence’s subconsciousness, where everything is possible thanks to a pharaonic production budget—as long as we stay disconnected from reality.