If Netflix keeps putting out big movies with no marketing, it might not be because it wants to save money but because it doesn’t want to draw attention to itself if the movies are bad.
And let’s face it, in a year when Netflix has given us big-budget flops like The Gray Man and The School for Good and Evil, it doesn’t seem like the worst idea to be unsure about a $150 million fantasy film starring Jason Momoa as a horned lothario cosplaying Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.
But against all odds, this week’s online blockbuster Slumberland might be one of the best kids’ movies of the holiday season.
Even with the most recent Enola Holmes 2 movie, Francis Lawrence is best known for directing the three Hunger Games movies, I Am Legend and Jennifer Lawrence’s raunchiest movie to date. Slumberland is a lush fantasy adventure that combines old-world charm with modern visual effects.
Nemo is a young girl played by newcomer Marlow Barkley. She lives in a romantic old lighthouse with her father, a grizzled sailor named Peter, who is played by Kyle Chandler with the right amount of twinkly-eyed charm.
Away from everyone else, they live a fairy-tale life together. But one stormy night, Peter suddenly goes out to save someone and doesn’t come back. Nemo, who is sad, is soon sent to live with her uncle Phil, who is played by Chris O’Dowd, in the big city.
Phil doesn’t get along with his brother and is the exact opposite of him in every way. Peter loved being outside, finding his own food, and breaking rules. Phil, on the other hand, lives alone, eats out of boxes, and sells doorknobs for a living. He’s not mean, but he’s dull.
Nemo finds it hard to adjust to her new life in Phil’s cold apartment, but one night she dreams about Flip, a magical creature with long hair and a constant swarm of flies around him. Nemo knows him right away as the smelly, swashbuckling character from her father’s bedtime stories.
Even though his costume makes it look like he could start singing “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” at any moment, Momoa seems to be channeling Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in his performance as Flip. Flip is a mix of a con man and a silver fox, just like Captain Jack.
He tells one character that he is “a troubling mix of the father figure and pent-up masculinity” and hides in the land of dreams, where he hunts for mysterious pearls for reasons that aren’t made clear in the movie. To find these pearls, he tells a sad Nemo, he needs her father’s secret map. Together, they go on an adventure through Slumberland.
As they go, they find strange new parts of the dreamscape and try to avoid nightmarish “cops.” Nemo, of course, has her own reasons for going along. Even if it’s just a dream, she wants to see her father again.
The set design is amazing, and not just in the scenes in Slumberland. One would think that in a movie like this, all the attention would go into designing the dreamlands, and the results are stunning. However, you can’t help but be impressed when you see that the same level of careful detail went into making the interiors of the rustic lighthouse and Phil’s home, which looks like it came from IKEA.
Lawrence has shown that he is a pretty steady hand when it comes to big action scenes, without having to use too much CGI or choppy editing to make up for a lack of vision. In Slumberland, the action takes place almost entirely in computer-generated environments, which is different from some of his other movies. However, the action is easy to follow, the goals are clear, and the focus is always on Nemo.
And as interesting as Barkley and Momoa’s main roles are, it’s great that the movie doesn’t try to make Uncle Phil into a bad guy. Instead, he has a story arc that is almost as clear as Nemo’s. I think adults would connect with Phil, while kids would be drawn to Nemo.
The story is simple, and you can feel how sincere it is. Slumberland never feels the need to wink at the audience or make jokes that take away from how serious it is. Slumberland is a real movie, even though the dream world it takes place in is obviously made up. It has well-written characters who go on big personal journeys, a moving score by Pinar Toprak, and a lot of action.