Everytime he falls asleep, Nemo (voiced by Gabriel Damon), a little boy in turn of the century New York, takes off on his flying bed into the wondrous land of dreams known as Slumberland. One night an astounding airship appears in the sky unleashing an array of colourful characters in Nemo’s bedroom. They announce young Nemo has been requested as the playmate of Princess Camille (Laura Mooney), daughter of the king of Slumberland. Guided by Professor Genius (Rene Auberjonois) and sprightly page Bon Bon (Sherry Lynn), Nemo and his pet flying squirrel Icarus (Danny Mann) witness all kinds of wonders in Slumberland and win the heart of the fair princess. But when Nemo falls in with fun-loving Flip (Mickey Rooney), the pair accidentally unleash the Nightmare King (Bill Martin) upon Slumberland and he kidnaps King Morpheus (Bernard Erhard). It is up to Nemo, Princess Camille and their faithful friends to rescue the king and save the world.
Windsor McKay broke new ground with his classic comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland, a work of staggering imagination. His flights of fancy inspired authors, animators and filmmakers around the world, from Walt Disney to Federico Fellini. There were several faltering attempts to bring Nemo to the big screen including McKay’s own 1911 short, a cameo from the character in the Vittorio De Sica directed segment of the fantasy anthology The Witches (1966) starring Clint Eastwood (!), and the strangely muted and melancholy French film Dream One: Nemo (1984) produced by John Boorman starring Jason Connery, of all people, as a grownup Nemo who instead of his familiar supporting cast shared the screen with Harvey Keitel (as Zorro!) and Euro lovelies Carole Bouquet and Mathilda May.
By far the most notable adaptation was this lavish Japanese-American animated feature, co-directed by Masami Hata, the talent behind such similarly ambitious, internationally-aimed anime as The Mouse and His Child (1977), Ringing Bell (1978) and The Sea Prince and the Fire Child (1982), and William Hurtz, veteran of TV favourites from The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show to George of the Jungle. Almost a decade in the making, this suffered tumultous production problems including the removal of anime wizard Hayao Miyazaki as original director although future Studio Ghibli alumnus Yoshifumi Kondo - who directed Whisper of the Heart (1995) before his untimely death - stayed on to helm an early promo version in 1984 while yet another acclaimed anime auteur, Osamu Dezaki, delivered a second version in 1987.
Although the finished film, which went straight to video three years after its Japanese release, fell short of capturing the unique magic of its source, it is not without its charms and has since proven something of a cult favourite. Its production team reads like a roll-call of creative giants: legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson, Ken Anderson and Corny Cole; fantasy author Ray Bradbury; visionary comic artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud; Brian Froud the conceptual artist behind The Dark Crystal (1983) and Labyrinth (1986); famed composers the Sherman brothers who put the toe-tapping tunes into Mary Poppins (1964), The Jungle Book (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968); and a screenplay co-authored by Chris Columbus, future director of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) with legendary Chinatown (1974) scribe Robert Towne. But appearances can be deceptive. Many of these are supposedly “ghost credits” for people who bailed out in pre-production, although some of their influence shines through.
There are moments that capture the grandeur of McKay’s whimsical imaginings with some truly beautiful animation and design work that collective assembles into the great big, candy-coloured toy store of our wildest childhood dreams. The mix of art styles makes for a fascinating whole with some exhilarating set-pieces (the sublime flying sequences, the first appearance of the airship looking like a floating palace of rainbow lights, gorgeous retro-steampunk visuals in Slumberland complemented by surprisingly gothic vistas in the Nightmare realm) but the sloppy story structure runs closer to average Saturday morning cartoon fare.
Like Alice in Wonderland, the plot runs on dream logic but its devotion to whimsy sometimes rides at the expense of emotional involvement. There is a vague subtext wherein the fantasy events serve as a subconscious allegory for Nemo’s journey towards maturity, but these are muted at best although the characters remain vivid and delightful from our wide-eyed hero to the fetchingly feisty princess and, most winningly, a cuddly array of shapeshifting goblins that are most likely Froud’s contribution. It is worth noting the film replaces Nemo’s original African pygmy sidekick with the less controversial flying squirrel, though Windsor McKay buffs should look out for a cameo from Gertie the Dinosaur. While the songs contributed by the Sherman brothers are not as memorable as past classics, the theme sung by Grammy award winner Melissa Manchester is quite lovely.