Slumberland (2022)

“You’re just a figment of my imagination.”

Full of inventive adventures, fueled by classic bedtime stories, and packing a fresh way of presenting the sleepy material in a new and inviting visual medium, Slumberland is an old and revolutionary comic strip brought to modern life. It’s a playful rumination on the twisted and oft ebbing tides of love and loss, balancing seriousness with fragility, and adds in doses of humor for good measure throughout. Slumberland is honest, heartfelt, and honorific. This big and bombastic Netflix streamer extends its heartstrings and feels with great earnest, and the heartfelt moments are pivotal. It’s an imaginative, bumpy, discerning tear-jerker, and a rocky rollercoaster that somehow nails the landing.

The young Nemo (Marlow Barkley) is homeschooled by her lighthouse keeping father Peter (Kyle Chandler), raised in an wavering and sea swallowed environment where survival is never guaranteed and schooling is done more by the way of life than it is by the books, although literature and the sacrosanct practice of bedtime storytelling does play a pivotal and prominent role throughout her unconventional upbringing. Nemo adores her father and the unique life he’s cast them into, and things are only upturned when the lighthouse goes dark. She turns totally inwards, and initially entirely ignores the futile attempts of her begrudgingly adoptive Uncle Phillip (Chris O’Dowd) as he tries to reel her back into the real world. The stubborn Nemo knows how to swim in her vast seas of dreams though, and it’s there that she chooses to face reality.

Imagination fuels Nemo’s existence, and the movie captures the absurdity of dreams in a way that feels real but also manages to push the plot forward. One second she’s in bed and the next it’s towering stories above while walking on spiderlike legs. Helping to guide her through the titular Slumberland is Flip (Jason Momoa), who seems to be a charming amalgamation of Disney’s Beast and an homage to the prickly and prying Maurice from 1989’s Little Monsters. Momoa embraces the comedic elements of the character, even though it’s rather forced half the time, but his unending charisma saves a performance that falls flat more often than not; he’s playing a version of himself. The real acting comes from Barkley as Nemo. She’s strong-willed, determined, resilient, and Barkley makes the film work as a fantasy adventure grounded in some seriously heavy drama. Slumberland is as fun as it is often forlorn.

Like most late night bedtime stories, Slumberland does tend to meander, not always getting to the point or focusing on hitting a particular story beat. But in those moments the film dials in on eliciting some kind of emotion; maybe it’s excitement from one of the chase sequences, wonderment from the occasionally outstanding CGI shots, or digging deep into the catharsis and grieving process fueling the entire endeavor. Like a lesser Bridge to Terabithia by way of Bambi, and colored in the vain of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet picture, Francis Lawrence’s film honors the work of the late artist and storyteller Winsor McCay whilst bringing his world to a new audience and through a new medium. Slumberland might be too obvious and predictable at times, but it’s a compelling adventure for kids and mature enough for both parents and children to appreciate at different levels. I found it earnest, honest, and deceptively emotional.

“No dream lasts forever.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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