Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, a Japanese/American production based on the comic strip by Winsor McCay, is a delightful romp through imagination, dreams, and nightmares. Despite the somewhat messy production, TMS Studio’s adaptation is an amusement: pretty, simple, and entertaining.
The film, released in Japan in 1989 as simply Nemo, follows the adventures of young Nemo (Gabriel Damon, Takuma Gōno) as he is invited and escorted to Slumberland, initially to be playmate to Princess Camille (Laura Mooney, Hiroko Kasahara); it’s also revealed that King Morpheus (Bernard Erhard, Kenji Utsumi) intends Nemo to be his heir (because the princess can’t be, apparently, though her opinion on the matter is never revealed). Arriving in a dirigible, he also briefly meets the incorrigible Flip (Mickey Rooney, Chikao Ōtsuka), a con-man with a cigar problem, who eventually leads Nemo astray. He convinces Nemo to use the special Slumberland key to open the most dangerous door in the land, unleashing darkness, and, once exposed, blames Nemo entirely. It’s up to Nemo, his flying squirrel Icarus, and the Princess Camille to find a way to defeat the darkness and save Slumberland.
Little Nemo went through a variety of directors, writers, and even animators. Eventually the screenplay was credited to Chris Columbus and Richard Outten, with story concept credit to Ray Bradbury. Directors Masami Hata and William Hurtz covered the Japanese and American sides of animation. Producer Yutaka Fujioka began the quest, always wanting to adapt the comic strip into a full-length animated film; in 1977, he personally visited the descendants of Winsor McCay in Monterey, California, to obtain film rights. He then approached such greats as George Lucas and Chuck Jones to co-produced but both declined.
Production officially began in 1982, with the founding of TMS/Kinetographics in the US. The film cycled through producers, directors, writers, and even animators. At one point, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were involved, but parted due to creative differences. Directors Andy Gaskill & Yoshifumi Kondo came on but then exited after completing a pilot film; this process was repeated by Osamu Dezaki, and then Sadao Tsukioka.
On the animation side, Brad Bird and Jerry Rees were at one point involved; they would ask animators what they were doing, to which the common response was “illustrating what Bradbury is writing.” This was followed up with Bradbury himself in a later meeting, wherein Bird and Rees asked about the story, and Bradbury replied, “I’m just putting in writing what these wonderful artists are drawing.” Other temporarily involved animators & visual developers included Ken Anderson, Leo Salkin, John Canemaker, and Brian Froud, with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston consulting. The actual animation process commenced January 1988, as TMS was finishing Akira.
The whole in-flux production team completed the film seven years after production started, but it took an extra three years to release in the US.
Although the style differed from the original comic strip, and is often considered an anime film, the film has a charm all its own, with lovely production design and fun character design throughout. The visuals throughout Slumberland are colorful, big, and well-detailed, especially all the design around the palace, filled with (appropriately) dreamy atmosphere. Flip has a fun froggish design, while the King looks like regal Santa; and the princess is fairly generic in design but well-formed. Nightmareland is similarly fun, though the production design is less detailed. However, the character design picks up a bit here and Brian Froud’s influence is clearly visible in the goblin designs. The Nightmare King (Bill Martin, Tarō Ishida), however, is fairly underwhelming, feeling a little too close to Disney’s Chernabog of Fantasia and the Horned King of The Black Cauldron mixed together. In fact, the villain is nearly forgettable entirely until reminded in the actual film again. Thankfully, that is one of few writing pitfalls.
Given the on-and-off-again writing situation, the fact that Little Nemo has a fairly solid story is remarkable in its own right. Although simple and limited in any character development, the story itself holds with very few, if any plot holes, though the dialogue is sometimes chunky. As pointed out, the villain is weak and the loose point of the princess being the obvious heir to the throne is somewhat aggravating every time. In fact, Princess Camille is a little enigmatic but refreshingly strong-willed, even gloriously punching Flip when he calls her “cute when [she’s] angry.” Nemo is also a solid basic character, though his development as a person is minimal, but he is only a kid. The other characters are, more or less, window dressing for plot and filler purposes.
Musically, the film stands up too, with score and songs written by the infamous Sherman Brothers. The songs are charming, catchy, and well-sung by Melissa Manchester (whom you might remember as the voice of that slightly scandalous singer in the pub in The Great Mouse Detective). “Little Nemo” and “Slumberland” are the two main songs, the latter of which is momentarily sung by the princess as she plays the harp. Other shorter ditties include “Etiquette” and the Boomps goblin song. These two are more fast paced than the main songs but ultimately less significant. The score itself easily fits the tone of the film, though not continuous, and complements the more intense scenes well.
Despite being aesthetically pleasing and generally well-developed, Little Nemo bombed at the box office, competing with Kiki’s Delivery Service the same summer in Japan. The US release in 1992, with English dub and 11 minutes cut for a G rating, opened to positive critical reviews but still flopped at the US box office. However, the film still earned a nomination for ‘Best Animated Feature’ at the 1993 Annie Awards, and became the #4 best-selling children’s film on VHS in 1993. Several re-releases followed, with periods of the film being out-of-print and skyrocketing in price; in 2012, Discotek released a Blu-Ray special edition, with the Japanese and English versions and the pilot films mentioned earlier from the film’s production.
Solid and entertaining, Little Nemo is well worth watching for the entire family, even with the supposedly spooky Nightmare King.