The 1989 anime movie Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland‘s memorability comes from enduring an exhaustive developmental phase that included many famous figures in a film touching the project before dropping out. Hayao Miyazaki, George Lucas, Jerry Rees and more all had a hand in this project before withdrawing. TMS Entertainment Co., famous for The Rose of Versailles, Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple and Akira, handled the animation, while the film’s final screenplay credits Christopher Columbus and Richard Outten.
Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland‘s final product weathered the storm to reach the screen. While the film may have suffered because of that storm, it still has lovely animation and a unique charm that makes it worth checking out. That charm shines through in the quirky cast of characters and the inventive worlds of Slumberland and Nightmare Land.
The film opens with a catchy, albeit mildly annoying song leading to the first dream sequence. This sequence has Nemo whimsically flying through a big city on his bed before nightmarish elements start to take over. Nemo runs from an aggressive train, falls down a deep chasm, then almost sinks into the water where he could drown, feeling trapped when he cannot find safety in his home. These situations come from some of the more common nightmares people experience. Setting the story up with these genuine nightmares and dream logic adds a certain level of connection between the viewer and Nemo’s plights in his dreams.
Nemo receives a royal invitation to Slumberland to become a playmate for Princess Camille. Obtaining this invitation even though he is an average boy could be a reference to a dream of power. Nemo’s dream of power makes even more sense when his dream turns into a hero’s dream as he sets up his problems to overcome and prove that he is a strong and capable young man.
Slumberland pops with richly colored frames and multilayered animation that couples nicely with the sing-song nature of the world. Through a sequence of these songs, viewers meet King Morpheus, his daughter and the residents of Slumberland, all of whom appear as familiar faces from a circus parade Nemo attended before falling asleep. Setting up the world with these beautiful colors, friendly faces and vibrant songs allows for a more impactful moment when the Nightmare King is set free and starts wreaking havoc on the kingdom.
Then, the colors fade and the eldritch horror of the nightmares oozes through the castle before kidnapping the King. Changing direction from a bright, lush kingdom into a barren wasteland filled with creepy creatures keeps the pacing on a steady path. Luckily, not all of these creatures are evil, as a group of Boomps (furry goblins) joins the party to save King Morpheus, Princess Camille and Professor Genius from the Nightmare King.
Nemo’s path through the Nightmare Kingdom is surreal as he slips between the wasteland and a false reality. With the aid of the Boomps and his charming flying squirrel companion Icarus, he reaches the Nightmare King’s fortress and confronts him with a scepter he received from King Morpheus. After taking down a nightmarish flying stingray with this power scepter, Nemo, Icarus and his Boomp buddies take on the Nightmare King himself.
The lead-up to this final battle contains one of the most memorable sequences in the film, where the Nightmare King pokes fun at Nemo and the magic of using the scepter. For most of the film, Nemo wears pajamas, and one of the words in the chant to use the scepter also happens to be “pajama.” When Nemo is stammering over the words and keeps saying “pajama” to release some power, the Nightmare King rips on his efforts: “Oooo, pajamas do scare me so! Ha Ha Ha!” This unexpected humor adds a necessary comedic touch to the darker sequences.
After getting the incantation out, Nemo smites the Nightmare King and rescues his friends from Slumberland. A celebration commences as Nemo soars through another cute and colorful sequence where he interacts with all the familiar faces. After all is said and done, he peacefully wakes up in bed to his mother calling his name. This final sequence could remove much weight from the film’s story if Nemo’s adventure were indeed just a dream and not an isekai experience in an alternate world.
If the film’s stakes don’t alter Nemo’s reality, it significantly hurts the narrative. However, there is a hint that it may be an alternate reality visited by Nemo’s subconscious when he sleeps: Icarus’ presence in and awareness of Slumberland. Reading into this hint may be a stretch, but having this journey affect Nemo outside the dreams adds more weight to the film. Either way, the movie survived developmental hell and is well worth checking out for its contrasting worlds, creepy 1980s kid’s movie villain and lovely animation.
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