Slumberland Review: Not Your Dream Jason Momoa Movie

Jason Momoa shows a different side in Slumberland as the man-beast of your dreams, but the Netflix film struggles to stay awake.

Jason Momoa in Slumberland
Photo: Netflix

If you look at it from a certain angle, dreams are the fixations of all artists in any medium. Probably since the first time a restless soul etched markings in a cave somewhere, we’ve had dreamers attempting to convey how they see the world when their eyes are closed.

This idea has only grown more pronounced after the advent of cinema, with directors often likening their films to “dreams”—visions that need to be told whether by way of surrealist set designs or spinning hotel corridors. And director Francis Lawrence of Constantine and Hunger Games fame can be added to that list with this weekend’s Slumberland, a new family film that co-opts the dreams conjured by another medium a hundred years ago… and then adds Jason Momoa with fangs.

Indeed, Slumberland is a loose adaptation of a now relatively obscure comic strip from the turn of the 20th century. But in its heyday, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland was a sensation. Across weekly newspaper panels, McCay documented the nocturnal adventures of a child in Slumberland and his best buddy, Flip. In the funny pages, Flip was a mischievous clown; in the Netflix movie he’s a six-foot and four-inch wildebeest. Literally, with the character now being an enormous being with the body of Aquaman, the tusks of a boar, the fangs of a lion, and the horns of a ram. Yet there’s still something appealingly clownish about Momoa’s energy. I just wish the film around him dreamed a little bigger.

Slumberland is certainly a handsome looking entertainment. Unlike most Netflix content, visible thought is placed into every composition. This applies both to the dreamy sequences and those set in the real world, with the film opening promisingly inside a cozy lighthouse where Nemo, gender-flipped and played convincingly by Marlow Barkley, lives with her housekeeper father (Kyle Chandler). He’s a doting papa and certainly better adjusted than most onscreen representations of his vocation, although he does keep reciting funny stories about the heists he allegedly performed in his youth with a rapscallion partner called Flip.

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Alas, tragedy quickly strikes when Nemo dreams one night of a tentacled shadow dragging her father to the bottom of the ocean. When she awakes, she is informed her father and his vessel really were lost at sea. As a consequence, Nemo must move into the home of her estranged uncle that she’s never met, Philip (Chris O’Dowd), and adjust to life in an ultra-modern city. It’d be a nightmare if not for the escape of her actual dreams.

Only when her head hits the pillow does Nemo feel liberated, as well as vindicated into believing she can still find her father alive in this dream world. She certainly has found an interesting companion in Flip, a trickster-like presence who comes to Nemo revealing that here in Slumberland, he was her daddy’s former partner in dream crime.

As an enormous furry creation, made all the taller still by his top hat and tails, Momoa is intended to loom large in both the frame and Nemo’s subconscious. Yet he’s a welcome departure for the Game of Thrones and superhero actor, who’s been somewhat pigeonholed into playing barbaric warriors and vibing dudebros. Still, Momoa and the film make better use of his natural charisma during the early scenes where Flip is standoffish to Nemo. Momoa is more mischievous than his typical onscreen personas, but it plays better when there’s a lightly worrying aspect to that presence—think more Beetlejuice than Willy Wonka. The later scenes may ask for too much sentimentality from the star.

Even so, there’s a genuine sense of affection between Momoa and Barkley, which should be able to anchor the emotional crux of the picture. Unfortunately, there is nothing for them to really catch hold to in this movie’s bottomless sea of digital trickery.

In isolation, several dream sequences work quite well in Slumberland: an Art Deco hall of bathroom mirrors that Flip and Nemo can only access by climbing out of a toilet’s water tank suggests delightful dream logic; elsewhere Momoa gets to show his salsa swagger by dancing with a stranger’s festive dreams; and while an obviously calculated injection of cuteness, Nemo’s furry stuffed pig becoming a silent sidekick is a winner in heartstring-pulling character design.

By and large, however, the shimmering CGI of the film looks like a pastiche of other dreamers’ lucid memories. The cityscapes around Flip and Nemo fold onto themselves like the skylines of Paris in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and the character of Agent Green (Weruche Opia) is just a more kid-friendly retread on Hugo Weaving’s similarly buttoned up antagonist in The Matrix.

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Of course the target audience won’t pick up those visual and narrative lifts, with the whole thing being a new kind of wonderland. Perhaps that’s all that should matter, but the lack of originality will keep parents at arm’s length from the movie, and likely anxious to watch this the way most Netflix products are consumed: with their phone in hand.

The dynamic between Nemo and Uncle Philip is similarly miscued, with it becoming the unlikely center of a movie that puts far too much emphasis on the new guardian’s pitiful introversion and inability to connect with his niece. While there is a narrative function to this, it robs O’Dowd of his natural warmth and likely will make the movie’s excess of real-world scenes unusually dreary for the target audience. It’s difficult to imagine even most adults spotting what the filmmakers think is the emotional crux of the experience.

Still, the flights of fancy, borrowed or original, will probably amuse the youngest of audiences, although the picture’s full two-hour runtime may cause parents to fast forward over the slow bits. Either way, specific images of the movie will surely live on in dreams to come. We’re just not sure if they’ll be dreams worth remembering.

Slumberland is streaming on Netflix now.