By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
If I were the same age as “Slumberland’s” heroine, Nemo, perhaps around 12, this would have instantly become my new favorite fantasy movie. Netflix’s “Slumberland” has everything that a movie for youngsters on the cusp of adulthood should have—imagination, humor, enigmatic fantastical creatures, and dreams—everything we need to escape the hardships of real life.
“Slumberland” contains all the essential elements of a fairy tale—starting with the missing parent. Nemo, played charmingly by Marlow Barkley, lives an enclosed and joyous existence with her lighthouse caretaker father, Peter—a real life dream of sorts—until, inevitably, Peter, played by Kyle Chandler, as the quintessential, ruggedly handsome, mariner, is lost at sea while searching for an imperiled fishing boat. Before he goes, Peter tells Nemo—who wishes for nothing more than to stay on lighthouse island forever—that he will give her the key to the lighthouse when she can answer him correctly, “What is a lighthouse for?”
Nemo dreams of her father’s demise, and wakes to find it is true. This shows us the power of Nemo’s dreams, and also that her dreams will be messengers and gateways throughout the film where, according to the “rules” of Slumberland—or the dream world—you always get the dream you’re supposed to have. Presumably, dreams teach you some lessons or reveal some truth. Nemo, in danger of becoming a ward of the state, is shipped off to her uncle, her father’s brother, Phillip (Chris O’Dowd), who lives a similarly cut-off existence, but in the big city. Now that Peter has died, and in a most scary fashion, Nemo is pursued by nightmares and she wants desperately, of course, as any child would, to be reunited with her father and the life they had together.
The first dream Nemo has in her new awkward residence, with her new awkward guardian, takes her back home. But all is not what it was. The nightmare is there, and so is “Flip,” a personage Nemo thought existed only in her father’s imagination as part of their nightly bedtime stories, but now is larger than life in front of her—searching for a map of Slumberland that can lead the dreamer not only through other people’s dreams but ultimately to the Sea of Nightmares (sounds fun, right?), where you can find a pearl that will grant your biggest wish.
Nemo would wish to be with her father. Flip, played exuberantly by Jason Momoa, in horns, clawed feet, and a crushed velvet trench coat, wants to remember who he/it is. Herein lies the danger of dreams, or escapism, or locking yourself away from the world in some way—it might turn into forever—which is what you think you want but not really. Usually, it’s a response to some disappointment, some sadness, and what you really wanted was connection. The theme rings especially true after the pandemic lockdown. Phillip works from home—in fact, I think this is the first time in a movie I’ve heard someone say, “I work from home”—and while that seems just…the new normal…we come to find out he has something he’s running from.
Phillip does not remember his dreams, and this is important in the movie. This could be important to you, too, if you are one of those people. You might start to ask yourself, why don’t I? It is equally important as having too many weird dreams, or escaping too much into dreams. I was really pleased with O’Dowd, who is rated one of the top actors in Ireland. He has been showing up in Hollywood, and Broadway, since about 2010, and is consistently invested and believable in every role. Barkley as Nemo is darling and fierce and not the least bit annoying—I mean that seriously. I normally find most child roles very grating but she shone in this one. Her tears make you want to cry and her smile makes you want to laugh. She is effervescent. Also, she has the most adorable stuffed pig (named “Pig”) that you will ever see in any toy store.
Momoa is spectacular as the “man-child” Flip. He’s part satyr, part squirrel, all goofball—but he can turn suddenly threatening and bare his vampire teeth. He’s also all Momoa. Even though we haven’t seen him in this type of role, quite, he basically dresses like he does in real life (he showed up to the LA premiere in silk pajamas and leopard print slippers which was awesome) and it wasn’t that jarring to see him with ram horns. Flip represents, as he himself knows, the “troubling mix of a father figure and raw, masculine power” a girl turning into a woman might dream of, and the complex feelings that come with it. She’s missing her father, but she also will have to grow up, like it or not (and she definitely does not, although she has all the spunk she needs). But Flip also represents that child within, that wish for escape, and adventure. That part of us that as adults we might push away, and even forget, as Phillip has done. No, we shouldn’t disappear into a dream world forever, but we shouldn’t entirely lose that child within, either.
We willingly join Nemo and Flip on their riotous ride, cavorting about Slumberland, running from the Slumberland police—who aren’t keen on people interrupting other people’s dreams —and trying to find the pearl and end Nemo’s nightmare. The dream world is completely captivating. The artwork is gorgeous and you immediately can’t wait to see what’s through each new “door” and what each new dream is composed of. Some dreams are comedic. Some are scary. Some are repressed wish fulfillment. All what people really dream of. If you’re from Canada, apparently, you dream of flying on a goose (lol).
“Slumberland” is full of wonder that will appeal to adults and children. All of the dream categories are there—dreams about losing teeth, dreams about endless staircases. It perfectly captures the adrenaline and bizarro world of dreams where often we gasp both in horror and delight—that sparkly city is beautiful but also creepy how it breaks apart like glass. Even if a dream is scary or uncomfortable, you still want to go into it with Nemo and Flip.
“Slumberland” has what every good fantasy story has. It makes you think about real life.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.