Movie review: Slumberland

(courtesy IM P Awards)

All too often when you lose someone close, it’s a catastrophically sudden thing that leave little to no time to deal with either its occurrence or its emotionally chaotic aftermath.

You are suddenly cut adrift, unmoored from the certainties of your life, and wish with every part of you that you could have time, just a little more time, to make some accommodation with the loss and find a way forward.

That’s something that 11-year-old lighthouse keeper’s daughter Nemo (Marlow Barkley) is all too sadly familiar with in Slumberland, directed by Francis Lawrence to a screenplay (itself based on an early 20th century comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay) by David Guion and Michael Handelman, after she finds herself an orphan when her father drowns one night heroically trying to save others in an horrifically violent storm.

Her grief is, as you would well understand, is profound.

She has lived her whole life on a small rocky island with her father, an idyllic homeschooled existence that is punctuated by pancake breakfasts where she has to dexterously catch on a plate her father’s flipped creations as he flings them across the kitchen, crab dinners by the shore (with each crab having a playfully ordinary name) and sailing trips across the bay in their small wooden sloop.

Her dad is warm, funny and engaged with her, his greatest gift, apart from an emotionally secure and highly quirky childhood, being the stories he tells her each night, all of which featured an outlaw called Trip, his former partner with whom he went on many journeys in the dream realm.

The stories he tells are gripping and utterly absorbing and as Nemo lies on her bed, her arms securely around her best plush toy, Pig (and yes, he is, in fact, a pig, a thoroughly uncreative naming regime which is the subject of a highly-amusing passing quip later on), she finds herself sucked into tales so improbably and giddily exciting that they become, for a short while at least, her entire world.

She dismisses it all as made up tales, welcome and much loved stories but fabricated all the same, until after her father’s death when she discovers that the dream world is real, as is her dad’s former outlaw partner Trip (played with comedic vivacity by Jason Mamoa in full Alice in Wonderland mode) and that if they can get through a number of other peoples’ dreams (be careful you don’t die in them!) and through the Sea of Nightmares, she might have a chance to talk with her father again and get that vital closure that so few of us ever get when we lose a loved one.

She needs to talk to her dad desperately because life with her uncle, her dad’s brother, in the City, is far from the carefree life she once knew and she craves re-anchoring herself to her father in an attempt to recapture some of the crushingly lost normalcy of old.

Plus her Uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd), who owns a doorknob business (and yes, it’s as unexciting as it sounds), is incredibly boring and awkward around her – thankfully he’s not antagonistic towards her presence, a welcome break from the overused trope; just completely unsure of how to be a sudden dad – which doesn’t help Nemo to feel any more at home in an urban setting which also now includes going to school, something of which Nemo is most definitely not a fan.

So, with all that on her very young plate, you can well understand why Nemo wants to go to sleep all the time and journey with Trip, who goes from resenting her presence to embracing her, their ties much closer that either can possibly know, and find a way to magically be with her father one last incredibly important time.

While Slumberland is an immersively visually garrulous romp through all kinds of gleefully technicolour scenarios, each of them dreamt up by someone who gets the dream they need, not the one they want – all dreams are constructed and delivered by an agency who oversees our sleeping hours – it doesn’t forsake heart in the pursuit of glitzy, surreal spectacle.

Every last scene of this fantastically-realised film surges with the melancholic truth that Nemo has lost her dad, and that Trip, who’s pursued by a dream cop called Agent Green (Weruche Opia in sensationally vibrant ’70s gear) can’t remember who he really is anymore – like everyone bar the residents of the dream agency, Trip is an avatar of someone in the “Waking World” – and while there are some buoyantly alive moments, we’re always reminded that great sadness lies behind the swashbuckling derring-do.

If there is one criticism to make, it would be the paucity of CGI sophistication, or lack thereof, much of the time.

For a film that largely rises and falls on the epically visual worlds that Trip and Nemo journey through in their journey of identity recapture and emotional healing respectively, Slumberland, which is not short on knockout ideas of how dreamland and the dreams that make it up should look, looks like it’s stuck in a perpetual buffering loop.

Much of the CGI pixelated and cheap, and while that might sound like the most superficial of First World criticisms, its lack of finish means that you are often taken fully out of what is a deeply harrowing emotional journey, especially for Nemo who NEEDS all this gallivanting to pay bigtime.

It doesn’t ruin the film of course which is profoundly affecting to its very core, but it mars it enough that you long for the perfect marriage of imaginative visuals and emotionally rich story which Slumberland could’ve have been with a bigger budget.

Overall, Slumberland is an emotionally evocative through the very worst of things that can happen to a person, and while resolution is forthcoming for both Nemo and Trip, who both find their way home, and come alive again, the film doesn’t make it easy for them, especially Nemo who must journey through some dark (if ironically super colourful dream landscapes), to come out the other side and to be reminded that life still has much in store for her in the Waking World.

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