Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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Welcome to the fantasy world of “Little Nemo,” filled with dreams of enchanted lands and new friends, amazing magic and fun-filled adventure. A place where anything is possible and the only boundaries are those of the imagination. In this major motion picture, Nemo journeys to the Kingdom of Slumberland. The King of Slumberland welcomes Nemo with open arts, making him heir to the throne and giving him a magical key that opens any door in the kingdom. “But I must warn you,” the King says, “there is one door you must never open.” Not heeding the King’s advice, Nemo unlocks the door. With the King kidnapped and the nightmare unleashed upon the kind people of Slumberland, Nemo and his friends must venture into the depths of the Nightmare World in a courageous attempt to make things right. Will they be able to save the King and restore peace to the Kingdom of Slumberland? Only then will Nemo dream happily ever after.

A huge step for Japanese animation within North America, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland was the first Japanese animated feature film to have received a wide release within North America. With key Japanese animators and directors such as Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Yoshifumi Kondo initially onboard to develop the project—but sadly left due to many creative differences—the project went through a variety of turbulent phases before even being released. Given the arousing support and creative talent that still remained behind the production, the film was ultimately considered a box office failure due to its low revenue returns. Despite this, the film regained some prosperity through its home video sales—while still remaining a favorite amongst a majority of viewers and critics alike. The film simply became one of those cases where a following developed after the film’s initial release, and whose prominence has simply grown outside the cinema and more so into the home watching experience.

It’s interesting to note the production of film because of the strenuous amount of effort that went into its construction. For all the obstacles that the film had to endure, one could easily apply the notion of the film simply being ahead of its time. It had all the right elements that young children often experience—imaginative dreams, wondrous adventures and even frightening nightmares—all encompassed within a visually stunning film that could easily be equated to that of a Studio Ghibli or Disney work, it’s simply that technically appropriate. This simplistic approach has often times been lauded as cliché or overdone within other animated films, but here it’s done to an imaginative effect that neither falls flat nor seems too contrived. From joyful scenes featuring impressive and catchy songs, to adventurous ones filled with aerial pursuits and clashes, the film is equally impressive on multiple fronts. Deriving from comic strip by Winsor McCay published in 1905, the transfer from comic strip to celluloid is absolutely fantastic—even if it doesn’t exactly follow the episodic nature presented in the strip. The look of the characters and environments presented within the film are duly captured from the original comic strip, which is already quite alluring to begin with—in other words, the wealth of creativity stemming from the source material certainly helped the film in developing its atmospheric world.

Which brings us to the visual aspect of the film. With fluid and graceful animation presented throughout the film, it certainly captures the high-energy movement only envisioned within the realm of the McCay’s artistry. With the usage of traditional animation, the universe is able to come to life through its dazzling atmosphere and busy scenery—it really is quite stunning. Very Ghibli-esque in its exterior appearance—but still remaining somewhat Westernized with its handling of characters—the film devotes a lot of time to exploring and elaborating on its intricate environments and settings. With it usage of vibrant and colorfully lush displays of imagination, the film conveys a sense of appreciation towards traditional hand drawn animation. Alongside the visual element of the film is the music. Composed by the famous Sherman Brothers, the film’s score was performed by the extraordinary London Symphony Orchestra. This definitely raises the film far beyond the typical animated treatment; its usage simply enhances the film to a substantial degree not often heard in any other but the highest quality of animated films.

The film does have it downsides though. For one, the second arc of the film is rather slow and cumbersome, which slows the narrative down from the very action-oriented first half. The establishment of the villain is prominent during this portion, but it seems rather rushed and imbalanced considering the nature of his confrontation. While the first half within Slumberland was enjoyable, the second arc is definitely a much darker affair. This portion might also be too scary for younger children—which I’ll admit the film is primarily for—but adults should be completely fine with the material showcase during these parts. It’s just that the juxtaposition here seems slightly unfair given the rather lighthearted first half. Secondly, the film doesn’t necessarily follow the comic strip, which might disappoint certain fans expecting the film to strictly adhere to the original source material. Still, these are just minor quibbles compared to the entirety of the product, which for the most part still retains the vibrant atmosphere of fantasy found in McCay’s original comic strip.

Overall, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland ultimately remains an impressive albeit forgotten masterpiece. The reasons for remembrance are many, but the film still remains a pioneering work in many regards, primarily due to it breaking numerous barriers that had existed between both the American and Japanese market in terms of jointly promoting and creating animated feature films. The fact that it’s a film that actually complements the original comic strip is also greatly valued—even if it remains somewhat different in how its story is approached. In a more pragmatic view, the film provides excellent characterization of its cast, an enchanting and memorable soundtrack and a wholesome story that will certainly please both adults and children alike. It’s a story about facing one’s fear and meeting new and interesting characters—all the while being quite imaginative. I believe these are the strongest qualities for any film, whether it is live-action or animated, and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland is one film that encompasses all these qualities to present a triumphant display of animated and cinematic prowess not often viewed in many films today.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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  • Grumpy Jii

    Nice review, and good choice of subject.

    When we first received the Japanese laserdisc box set of “Little Nemo”, one of the extras included was a short (3-5 mininute?) concept film made before production to demonstrate the concept for potential investors. (Similar in purpose to Gainax’s short “Wings of Honneamise” concept film.) It showed Nemo flying off on his bed, but in a slightly different art style from the final movie. Our universal reaction to that little Nemo concept scene was “gee, that was better than the way it came out in the actual movie!” The reason, of course, was that Takahata, Miyazaki and Kondo wandered off to make “Nausicaa”, create studio Ghibli, make “Laputa”, “Totoro” and “Grave of the Fireflies”, all in the time it took to finish “Little Nemo”. Clearly the producers had too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s probably one of those interesting moments when anime history took a decisive turn. (Imagine a world where Takahata and Miyazaki had spent all those years toiling on “Little Nemo,” trying to please their American co-investors.)
    I wonder if that concept film is on the US DVD? I should check.

  • Douglas

    The US DVD doesn’t seem to have the concept film, which was a little disappointing. It does add in scenes that were absent from the theatrical and home video release though, which rounds out the film to the 100-minute mark.

    I’ve read that it was a disastrous situation for Miyazaki, who basically said it was one of the worse experiences in his life as an animator. The production of the film is simply astounding given all the creativity that was constantly being switch in and out of its creation.

    Did the laserdisc have anything else on it? I remember the VHS having a behind the scenes documentary that lasted around 23 minutes, that was sadly omitted from the DVD release for some odd reason.

  • Sean Lane

    I’m a huge animation fan, yet I seem to be one of the few that love this movie. I admit the plot, dialogue, and voice are unfortunately immensely lacking (Not that the McCay comics ever made much sense or had any depth), but I had enjoyed it much before I ever got into the newspaper strips. Much to my surprise, upon rewatching it last year, I found many things were directly referenced or lifted from the comics, which was a great delight. I always liked the light and dark split down the middle of the film, and I do remember it being particularly frightening as a kid when watching, but that was all part of the fun. I think the Japanese and American merging of styles, animation, and concept were great, not to mention the Brian Froud designed goblins (or I assume he concepted them, since he’s drawn similar guys). I think it was just the American writing that killed the thing incredibly.

    But my big question is, do you, Mr. Douglas, know where I can buy the Japanese DVD release of this? It seems I have really missed the boat here and learned about the concept movies on the DVD much too late (although I have seen them previously, I would like them in hard copy). I have looked many places and can’t seem to find anywhere that will sell me the Japanese DVD. It’s either a problem of no one shipping to the United States or the DVD being out of print. I’m crossing my fingers someone will list a copy on Ebay some day.

    I’m curious what is the run time for the Japanese release compared to the 100 minute US release. I did not realize scenes were added later on. It’s unusual for animation to have full deleted scenes that didn’t make it to the theatrical released. I’m interested to know which ones are new.

    Also does anyone know if there’s some sort of Japanese art book for the film as well? I’d be interested in seeing that.

  • Miguel Douglas

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for the comment. Regarding your question though, I believe only the Japanese laserdisc set contained the extras as well as the American and Japanese VHS release. This is really weird though because apparently none of the extras appearred on the the initial American DVD release, including the reissued one as well. I’m not entirely sure concerning the Japanese DVD release though, but I’m sure it’s probably out of print, which is certainly a shame.

    The Japanese and American theatrical release both ran at 82 minutes, with the missing 10:30 minutes being added back into both DVD releases. The missing minutes were not including in the VHS release of the film (domestically and foreign), but they did include the extras though! A weird arrangement–I’m hoping we get some kind of definitive release someday, but given the box-office performances in Japan and America, I sadly doubt this will happen.

    Concerning the art book, I don’t believe there was one, but I’m sure there was concept art released in some capacity. Same goes for the lost extras, but I can ask around to see if anyone has them in some form and let you know.

  • TheMantaBluRay

    Is the current Echo Bridge DVD in a widescreen aspect ratio? If so is it anamorphic?

  • Miguel Douglas

    Hi TheMantaBluRay,

    The Echo Bridge DVD is Wide Screen as well as anamorphic.

  • Dan Silva

    did anyone else think this movie was kind of perverted? it reminded me of parts of my childhood or something, idk..

  • Sean Lane

    Years later, just replying to let you know that the recent released blu-ray of the film has all of the features from the sought after Japanese DVD (which I still was never able to obtain). Nice for these pilot films to finally be available for the US audience.

  • Miguel Douglas

    Awesome, thanks for the heads up on the Blu-ray release Sean, will definitely purchase it.