Can we all just agree that dreams are fucking weird? They’re one of the least understood aspects of human life, and everybody but Mike Pence has them. Their are tons of theories about what their purpose is, what they mean, and why we’re always naked in them, but to this day, nobody can pinpoint what these bizarre movies we get to watch while we’re recharging even are. Sometimes they have purpose… Back when I was in a bad relationship where I felt trapped and with no control over my life, I’d constantly dream that I was stuck on a labyrinthian waterslide that I couldn’t escape from. But they can be completely nonsensical, too. Maybe you’re fighting in a war with flamethrowers, but they suddenly turn into waterguns. Maybe you’re running from a spider that can fit through any crack. Maybe you’re beating up pedophiles, taunting serial killers, throwing horses at witches, fighting demons in the wild west, meeting people you don’t see anymore, running from a golden car like it’s a metaphor for Satan, or hell, maybe you get into a car crash but wind up in your living room, with your family ominously telling you “It’s waiting.”
For little Nemo, dreams aren’t quite like that. Every single one of his dreams is a lucid one, and he can use them to escape to big fantastical worlds, all by riding on his bed like it’s a magic carpet. One day, after seeing a parade and wanting desperately to go to the circus, Nemo drifts off and is invited to the world of Slumberland, a country governed by a kind, jovial king and his prickly little daughter, and inhabited by a whole host of wild and zany characters. Nemo is declared the King’s heir, and entrusted with protecting it from harm, but it isn’t long at all before one of these inhabitants, a chain-smoking green minstrel named Flip, tempts him into letting Slumberland get taken over by a terrifying sea of darkness, which leaves it in shambles and takes the King away to a faraway land. With the order of a whole world now at stake, there is only one chance at saving it… Joined by Flip, the princess, a wacky professor and his talking squirrel sidekick, Nemo must brave the horrors of Nightmareland to make everything right again!
If I were to show you Little Nemo directly, there are two reactions I expect from you almost immediately. The first would be disbelief at the fact that Nemo’s not a clownfish(although his world is populated by Clowns), and incredulity at the fact that it really doesn’t look like an anime. It is, I assure you… It was produced by Japan and released in Japan three years before it was released in the States, although I’d say roughly a quarter of the people credited to making it are American, including both of the screenwriters. The production was a mess of almost legendary proportions, with huge names from both sides of the ocean coming into the project and then leaving it just as quickly, leaving influence behind but rarely ever any guidance on how to implement it. Even Hayao Miyazaki himself was attached at one point, which is probably why the movie opens with a sequence of Nemo flying through the city on his bed. It was ultimately produced by TMS, a company that made Akira and animated several american cartoons.
And speaking of American cartoons, that’s exactly what this movie was based on. Little Nemo was originally a newspaper comic that ran in the early 1900’s, which doesn’t sound like something an anime would ever be based on, and yet lo and behold, that’s what we have here. Visually, this is exactly what I’d think of if I was told that an anime was being designed to look like an American product. First of all, being that this WAS a product of TMS, the animation budget was high, so there’s a lot of fluid animation and graceful character movement, sometimes almost to a fault. It is very lively, and it makes the movie feel really energetic, but there’s also a certain feeling of over-indulgence to it, like what the Nostalgia Critic might call movement porn. It never stops moving, which can almost feel exhausting at points. It’s one of those cases where something was new at the time, and had never really been attempted to such a degree, so of course it was impressive at the time for what it achieved, but looking back, it could have been done better.
For example, there’s a scene where the cast engages in a dance at the palace, and Professor Genius starts doing a weird dance(I’d be surprised if The Duke of Wesselton wasn’t at least partially inspired by this), and then the king joins in, and for this strangely surreal moment, it looks like the two are moving in sync, probably through some sort of rotoscoping, despite being at least a foot apart in height. It’s a really creepy bit of Uncanny valley. Oh, and speaking of Uncanny valley, there’s also the facial animations, which I actually kind of had trouble watching. Characters were so far removed from your typical anime style that it honestly looks like something Chuck Jones would have animated while shit-face drunk, and this is reflected in the character designs. Most of the characters look all right, if a bit generic, but the animation doesn’t always work in their favor. Princess Camille, for example? Whenever she lets her shoulders slump, she looks more arrow than human. She looks like the love child of Bob Belcher and Marzipan from the Homestarrunner cartoons. At least the demons look cool, I guess.
When it comes to the music, I was actually kind of expecting the American and Japanese releases to have different soundtracks, but surprisingly, they don’t. Even though this movie was originally released in Japan, the OST was comprised of English language songs. On Wikipedia, the music is credited to a few American sounding names, including the Sherman Brothers, who are absolute legends in the field of family film musical scores. The film’s main theme, which is simply named Little Nemo after the Japanese title of the movie, is beautiful. I love it. It works great in the film, carrying the kind of epic whimsy that can only be found in nineties children’s movies, and it’s just as strong when listened to on it’s own. Melissa Manchester has an amazing voice, which I really shouldn’t have to tell anyone who’s familiar with her work, and it’s a testament to her strength as an artist that she can carry the Sherman Brothers occasionally awkward and flowery lyrics without ever sounding hokey or condescending.
Unfortunately, this mark of inspiration doesn’t really carry over to the rest of the soundtrack, which sounds about as standard for a generic children’s movie soundtrack that you can get, with some of the songs being directly attached to scenes that were clearly added to the film just to pad out the run time. This is no more clear than with the song Etiquette, which I think was supposed to be funny, but just winds up coming off as annoying. Melissa Manchester is nowhere to be found on this track, but she might not have been able to save it anyway, because she wasn’t able to carry her majesty from Little Nemo over to the song Slumberland, which is just kind of boring over-all. Songs like Fun and Laughter, The Boomps Song and Princess of Slumberland are safe, saccharine and forgettable, which is sadly par for the course with this soundtrack. The instrumental tracks are okay, but they’re not the kind of thing that could ever set the world on fire, and there’s nothing about them that really justifies going out of your way to find them.
The English dub is… Well, it’s also okay. There are a ton of really popular names credited to this film, including a pre-Simpsons Nancy Cartwright and a post-Vampire Hunter D Michael McConnohie. Actually, there area ton of voice actors attached to this project whose resumes would surprise you, as even beyond famous names like Tress Macneille, Jennifer Darling, Sherry Lynn and the late June Foray, there are names that may have flown under your radar like René Auberjonois and Gabriel Damon, and I’m sad to say this, almost none of them brought their A-game to this project. There are a few exceptions, like Laura Mooney in the role of the Princess, who was the only cast member who CLEARLY wasn’t trying; Bernard Erhard, who put his heart and soul into making King Morpheus the most likeable guy in the world, and strangely enough Mickey Rooney, who was obviously having a blast playing the mischievous and duplicitous Flip. It’s not a great dub, but it’s passable enough, which is good, because western releases don’t include a Japanese language sub track.
So, here’s an interesting little bit of trivia for you guys: this was the first anime I ever watched. It predates my experiences with Pokemon and Dragonball by nearly a decade, even. When I was little, like really little, my Dad would often rent movies on VHS and bring them home for my brother and me to watch. He’d go to the grocery store… Wegmans, in my area… Rent some random movie with a G rating and bring it home for us. For those of you who are confused by those last two sentences, ask your parents. He’d bring home Disney movies, Don Bluth movies, straight-to-video shitfests(I saw Once Upon a Forest at least three times), and on one occasion, Little Nemo. Now, as a kid, I didn’t have the greatest attention span, but I always found myself getting absorbed in stories. I watched movies mostly attentively, and shamed people who didn’t(To this day, I get really annoyed by people who play on their phones during a movie), and as soon as I learned to read, I could go hours without putting a book or comic down.
There are some exceptions to this rule, however, and Little Nemo is one of them. My memory’s not great, but I’m pretty sure I only saw it once, and didn’t really pay attention to it. Even only a year later, all I could remember about it was the Princess Camille stuff, because even Little Naru loved him some princesses. I only really wound up thinking about it a few times in the years that followed, like one time when I was reading up on the history of newspaper comics, or when Finding Nemo came out, or when I found out it was an anime, or when The Nostalgia Critic and The Mysterious Mr. Enter did some really good videos on it, … But I never really started thinking about it seriously until I started reviewing anime, and I knew I’d have to hit it again eventually. Well, almost five years in, that time has finally come. I bought the movie online, let it sit on my coffee table for a few months(don’t judge me) and finally, I popped it in and watched it for the first time in over twenty years, and let me tell you, there’s a reason it bored me as a kid.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so to stay focused, I’m not going to go too far into any of the behind the scenes stuff. Production of this film was famously a nightmare, it’s apparently one of Hayao Miyazaki’s worst professional experiences, it was a huge bomb when it was released, and the production company, TMS, who were riding high after the success of Akira at the time, were so badly damaged by it that they haven’t been the same since. I don’t personally know any more about any of this than I’ve been told, I haven’t exactly done any research into it’s history… That’s not really the kind of thing I do here… But it’s lack of success isn’t really a surprise to me, and if you’ve ever seen it yourself, it doesn’t take a lot of run time to pick up on the fact that it was never going to be anybody’s favorite film for any reason but childhood nostalgia. The only thing I can really talk about here is my personal experience watching the movie, and if it helps, my thoughts as to why it flopped as hard as it did.
First of all, the main character… The titular Nemo… Is a special kind of bland. He has no personality to speak of, he has no interests or goals outside of visiting the circus and doing whatever the plot tells him to do, and if I had to guess, his companion, a little sentient flying squirrel with flight goggles on his head, was added to the story to make him more interesting in the new medium(it didn’t work. also, how weird is it that they had June Foray in the cast, the voice of rocky, but she didn’t play his arguable rip-off?)). He just goes with the flow while spouting off lazy little boy one-liners like Yippee! Gee Whiz! and Wowwee! He doesn’t even immediately grasp that a princess is a girl, a conversation which… to be fair… Was even dumber in the NES game. The worst thing about him isn’t how boring or bland he is, however… It’s how little agency he has in the story. for the bulk of the movie, he’s just following orders, going along with whatever the other characters want him to do, and when Flip pressures him to go back on some of these orders, he folds like origami.
The first real choice he makes is to try and undo that mistake… about twenty minutes after making it. He gains some agency in the third act, where he’s leading the charge to the Nightmare castle to rescue everybody, but even then, it’s hard to get invested because you never feel that he has any connection to any of it. He’s only known any of these people for less than a day, the whole world is just shallow eye candy with nothing substantial to offer, and I’m sorry, but a king who’s willing to hand a key to what’s basically the doors of hell to a child he just met fifteen minutes ago was asking for his kingdom to get taken over. In stories like these, the hero has to have a personal reason to save the world he’s wandered into, but with Nemo, he just feels like our excuse to explore a bunch of Candyland backgrounds in a barely story-driven animation demo, and the moments of actual story feel either distractingly stupid or gratingly annoying. When Nemo is being tossed around by spastic tutors trying to educate him on proper behavior, I wouldn’t care if he woke up, got up to use the bathroom, and then went back to bed and dreamed about running from monster tornadoes. I’d be just as engaged.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that we KNOW he’s just having a dream, and that there’s no more to it than that. Right in the beginning of the movie, we see most of the characters from Slumberland walking down the street in a parade, which is how he came to dream about them. That’s it. They’re not real. None of this is real. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the dream-like aspects were the whole point, and it was just supposed to be a trippy experiences, but there’s a story and plot involved, and there’s almost no urgency behind any of it. If he fails, nothing is lost. If he succeeds, nothing is gained. There’s no interesting subtext, no metaphor to speak of, no commentary, just the classic artwork and imagination of Windsor McKay being shown off in a story that doesn’t do any of it justice. I mean, the only thing that does any work moving the plot forward is the character of Flip, but his motivation in the story is so completely bankrupt that he almost feels like the personification of the audience screaming “Get on with it!”
It doesn’t even manage to be dream-like. Like I said before, dreams are weird. They don’t have plots, they don’t contain full stories. Little Nemo is too conventional of a story to even grasp the surrealism that any good dream-based narrative should, at the very least, be able to pull off. Remember in Nichijou, when characters are put in bizarre situations like having to eat noodles off of a shoot before they hit the ground? Or having to buy a snowman off of the shelf before it melts, and they do so with actual sincerity, like they believe these tasks to be important? That’s how dreams work. Remember Alice in Wonderland, or the old Nightmare Ned computer game? That’s how dreams work. Okay, the Nightmare Ned TV series had consistent stories, but at least they had the benefit of being smart and well written. You wanna show me a dream with a solid narrative? Make a movie where someone has to deal with a cult of people who brainwash each other into mutilating the bone structure of their faces, or getting stuck in a pizza place that’s a metaphor for purgatory.
The actual story is bad enough, but there’s almost no creativity to the visuals, and while I get that the whole movie is based on a preexisting work, and they had established content to work with, but that shouldn’t have limited them so harshly. It’s an adaptation, but the concept surrounding it was just ripe for updates. They could have unleashed their imaginations upon the world, using McKay’s imagination as a pretty solid foundation for interpretation, but everything just feels so lazy and uninspired. The Slumberland sets basically went from Candyland to the ocean to a dark and dreary underworld, and a King of nightmares(or something) who just looked like Chernabog on a juice cleanse. That’s the best you got? Give me a demonic three headed goat or something(can you tell I crowd-sourced some weird dream ideas for this review?)! I haven’t been this disappointed since the villain in Insidious turned out to be Darth Maul’s edge-lord little cousin! There are so many ways this movie could have been great, but sadly, they didn’t take any of them.
Little Nemo, which has the additional subtitle of Adventures of Slumberland over here, is way out of print, but the Easternstar DVD is still really easy to find online for cheap. The original comic is also easy to find online, but it ain’t cheap, and the books they’re contained in tend to be gigantic, and can be a pain to display because of it. The entire Little Nemo franchise is in the public domain, so if you want to use it for yourself, you can do so without issue.
When I reviewed Spirited Away, I went into detail on my revised feelings towards children’s media, and that a movie doesn’t necessarily have to be critically good for kids to watch it. The only exception is when a movie teaches a bad message or could potentially provide a negative influence, and there’s nothing like that in Little Nemo, so do I recommend showing it to your kids? I guess so, but I can’t honestly see them asking to see it. It’s a fairly obscure movie, and if it didn’t develop a huge cult following after getting put out on DVD early this decade, then I doubt it’ll happen anytime soon. If you have fond childhood memories of it and want to show it to your kids for that reason, go ahead, but there’s no guarantee they’ll like it. I certainly didn’t. That aside, it’s a pretty firmly forgotten movie, and while I’d love to see someone else take a shot at adapting McKay’s opus… come on Disney, this shit has your name all over it… This is one nostalgic movie you can leave right in your memories where it belongs. I give Little Nemo a 3/10.
Is it weird to see me post on a Sunday? Well, I’m going to be shaking things up a little starting next week, and that’s just a preview of what’s to come. If you have the time, I’d like you to support my new effort by leaving a comment asking me a question… Any question you like, I’ll answer as honestly as I can, and to the best of my abilities, next week. If you can’t leave a comment for whatever reason, then tweet it to @fullmetal_naru and I’ll add it to the list.
If you’re concerned about my post last week, don’t worry, I’m doing fine. Sorry to make things weird.