Nemo is a young boy with an interesting imagination. He is prone to having bizarre dreams and nightmares as well as walking around the house in his sleep. Upon checking out a large parade organised by a travelling circus, he and his best friend, a flying squirrel known as Icarus, are eager to see it. However they are disappointed because Nemo’s overworking father and busy mother don’t show as much enthusiasm as he does; only giving the response “Maybe Tomorrow”. Later that night, feeling rejected for not going to the circus that day, he gets caught sleepwalking, and is scolded for trying to take one of his mother’s pies, which he made a promise not to do. Later on, he sees the bizarre entrance of a man known as Professor Genius, who arrived to his bedroom under orders from King Morpheus of Slumberland, to take young Nemo to be the playmate of Princess Camille. While reluctant at first, he accepts and travels on a Dirigible to the Kingdom of Slumberland. After meeting the King himself at the Royal Palace, Nemo is told that he has been appointed the heir to the throne, and is given a special key that can open any door in the kingdom, with the warning that he must never open the door that has a symbol of a dragon similar to the one on the key itself. While having fun with the Princess, Nemo stumbles upon Flip, the kingdoms only criminal who causes chaos for fun, who encourages him to open a large mysterious door with a dragon symbol on it to see what’s inside. This mistake lets loose the evil King of Nightmare land, who takes King Morpheus captive. It is now up to Nemo, Icarus, Professor Genius, Princess Camille, Flip and friends they all meet along the way to rescue King Morpheus and put an end to the horrible nightmare they unleashed.
Admittingly, what got me interested in this film in the first place was its history and development, because so much went on in the 12 years that it went through, from an idea to a feature length animated film, that it surprises me that the production was never cancelled.
In 1905, American cartoonist Winsor McCay created Little Nemo, a weekly comic strip about a young boy’s adventure through the imaginative world of slumberland through his dreams. It was first published in the New York Herald until 1911 when it moved to the New York American, where it carried on until 1914. It is known as the cartoonist’s most famous works, especially since the Little Nemo strips and animations are practically his most archived pieces of work after his death in 1934.
Moving forward to the mid-1970s, Japanese anime producer and fan of Little Nemo, Yutaka Fujioka made it his goal to turn his favourite comic strips into fully animated film that would fully utilize the resources at his studio, owned by Tokyo Film Shinsha. In 1977, he flew to Monterry, California to meet McCay’s descendants to obtain the film rights. He originally approached George Lucas to direct the film, but he later left after having problems with the storyline. Animator Chuck Jones was later approached, but he turned down the offer. In 1982, TMS/Kinetographics was formed in America to produce Nemo as a cross Japanese-American production, which the film was officially announced the same year. On the American side, Gary Kurtz (Star Wars IV) was appointed producer for the American side, who hired Ray Bradbury and Edward Summer to write the screenplay. On the Japanese side, Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki were appointed directors, but they both left due to creative differences between themselves and the studio, Miyazaki himself quoting his involvement as “the worst experience of [his] professional career”, Gary Kurtz later stepped down in 1984.
Andy Gaskill and Yoshifumi Kondo (Whisper of the Heart) were later hired to direct, and were able to complete a three and a half minute long pilot film before leaving in 1985. Osamu Dezaki (Astro Boy) was later brought in to direct, producing a 10 minute pilot before leaving, and then later on Sadao Tsukioka was brought in and made a pilot film which hasn’t been released to the public as of now. Apparently during this period, the American production was confusing, since the animators told Brad Bird (The Incredibles) they were drawing what Ray Bradbury was writing, while Bradbury claimed he was writing what the animators were drawing.
Production finally made strong progress when Bradbury and Summer left, and Fujioka decide to work on a draft written by Chris Columbus (Harry Potter Films) and Moebius (Tron). Even though Summer was rehired to write another script, Richard Outten (Lionheart) was brought on to work on this draft. Award winning Disney composers, the Sherman Brothers, were brought on to compose the soundtrack and writing the songs, and a handful of Disney animators such as Ken Anderson (The Jungle Book) worked on individual scenes. Masami Hata was brought in from Tokyo Film Shinsha to direct on the Japanese side while William Hurtz was brought in to work on the American side. The film’s final animation development began in June 1988 and it was finally completed and released in Japan in 1989 and in America in 1992.
The animation is really good, characters move around smoothly and creatively, and there are quite imaginative scenes. While I have not read a lot of the original comics, seeing how the original strips are animated in this film is really well done, fun to watch and very memorable. I think it is a really great achievement how both the American and Japanese teams worked together, like the dancing sequences, which were recorded and performed in America, were animated in Japan at TMS. The environment of Slumberland is very colourful and vibrant, and Nightmare land looks dark and mystifying, which is a great contrast. While the real world isn’t shown as much, it is well drawn and gives a simplistic idea of the early 20th Century America. It’s really a film you need to see to enjoy all of the things you see.
The music is ok, there’s nothing really special. The orchestral pieces do really suit the scenes and there isn’t really anything to complain about. The songs however are hit and miss, no offense to the Sherman Brothers, but mainly the lyrics are a bit too cheesy, particularly the two main themes sung by Melissa Manchester, but to give them credit, they are quite memorable. The melodies are simple, and I’d be lying to say I wasn’t humming to some of the songs through the film.
Even though this is technically an anime film, meaning I should give comparison between the Japanese and English Dubs, I can only find a few clips of the Japanese version, so I can’t really give any good opinion of it. I can say that some of the voice actors are decent. Takuma Gōno does portray a young innocent tone for Nemo, although he makes him sound like a girl. Tarō Ishida sounds really sinister and dark, which makes him perfect for King Nightmare. Some of the other voices I can hear are quite good, some of them perform much better than the English cast, but since I don’t have much to compare on, and to face the fact that you’ll be lucky to find the full film in Japanese, that’s all I can give.
The English Dub is not good, but fun to listen to. Most of the voices are quite stereotypical, such as Professor Genius being smart and classy, King Morpheus being majestic with a large and mature tone and Nemo being the young boy. Mickey Rooney does an alright job as Flip, being gruff in tone but joyous in personality, kind of like a man from Brooklyn trying to act like a clown, and while Danny Mann’s voice for Icarus does get annoying at times, it is kind of hilarious and cute. On the other hand, some of the minor characters and Laura Mooney who voices Princess Camille are pretty bad actors, who can sound right can’t emote well to the scenes they appear in. King Nightmare sounds really dark and evil at times, but when I imagine a dark and evil overlord that can be comparable to the Devil, I don’t imagine the Tim Curry style voice that Bill Martin puts on.
What is an impressive challenge this film had was its story, since it was based on a weekly comic strip, and those kinds of adaption have varying success. While this film doesn’t have wholes if you really use a lot of initiative and suspension of disbelief, the plot can be messy at parts since not only is it trying to develop a story, but also show faithfulness to the original source material, this means there are scenes which are mainly made to refer to the comic, in particular this one scene where Nemo’s house suddenly gets flooded, leading him to use his bed as a boat, and randomly meets Professor Genuis who is floating on his suitcase, with no explanation of why other than to explain the current situation and because the scene happens in the comic I guess. I’ve read from other critics that one minor complaint is that it uses the stereotypical “good guys are brightly coloured while bad guys are dark” so it loses subtlety, but for a film suitable for kids, and that the main villain is made to be a natural evil entity, not a diabolical being, that should be expected.
I think the best way I can describe Little Nemo is that it tries to be a good Disney film, and while it shows itself as being better than a Disney film, it had potential of being better. It has the colourful and likeable group of characters, creative sequences, the great ability to play with the young audiences emotions, since Nightmare land does look dark and unsettling, and it’s great to watch, but every minute I watch I sense something that either doesn’t look or sound right. I think this is because the English side and the Japanese side had almost different ideas of what it should be like, with the Japanese side wanting a good film everyone can see, with great animation and settings to make it enjoyable for adults and kids, while the American side was focusing mainly on the kids, having characters that kids can enjoy and musical numbers that they can stay interested, like some of the classic Disney films. I’m not entirely certain since I’ve never seen the Japanese version in its entirety but it is clear that in the English version the American producers were probably pushing too hard in to that market that it film loses its edge. I think as a kid’s animated film however, it does really well, so if it was actually that idea that was going through the minds of both TMS and Kinetographics, then I believe they succeeded and that long and painful dedication really paid off.
Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland is available from Echo Bridge Home Entertainment. A video game based off the film titled “Nemo: The Dream Master” for the Nintendo Entertainment System was available from Capcom back in 1990, but has long been out of print although easily available in most places that sell retro games. The original comic strips by Winsor McCay have been compiled into multiple hardback collections, many of which were published by Fantagraphics and a couple by Checker Books, although I believe most are out of print and some can be quite pricey.