May 6, 2006
Partisans may believe that the Disney and anime styles are incompatible, but 1988's Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland would prove them wrong. Based on Winsor McCay's luscious and inventive Sunday comic strip from a century ago, Nemo, like Mighty Orbots, combined American storytelling with Japanese animation. (Coincidentally, Tokyo Movie Shinsha was the production studio involved with both projects.)
Nemo, however, took it further, combining Disney-style character designs and full character animation with Japanese backgrounds, visual effects and staging. It was a true best-of-both-worlds approach that worked like a charm, though there was no real attempt to mimic McCay's particular brand of meticulous draftsmanship. (Whether that's good or bad is up to you.)
Narratively, it also worked out pretty well. If I had to guess, I'd say it was Ray Bradbury's story that provided the fanciful and fantastic underpinnings, Chris Columbus's screenplay that provided the rhythm, and TMS's designs, storyboarding and animation that provided the convincing moments of unreality, fear and menace.
Like the comics, the action takes place in Slumberland, which the young, hyper-imaginative Nemo visits in his dreams. Nemo is fêted by Slumberland monarch King Morpheus and promptly gets himself into trouble, egged on by the rascally Flip. Since McCay's strip didn't really have an ongoing narrative, it's entirely understandable that the movie had to be fleshed out with Nemo's accidental unleashing of the Nightmare King and subsequent quest to set things right. And there isn't anything wrong with the story per se. But Nemo gets a little shaky in the details, as some of the strip's rougher edges are sanded down for the modern kid audience. Flip, originally a shabby-looking, cigar-chomping, ne'er do well clown is somewhat rehabilitated from someone you'd yank your kids away from to a well-meaning guy who just makes bad choices. The stereotypical nappy-headed jungle native Impy had to go, of course (though in McCay's strip he's more benign than most such depictions), but his absence is balanced by the introduction of a goggle-wearing flying squirrel named Icarus. (Yes, a goggle-wearing flying squirrel. Hokey smokes, how shameless can you get?) Overall, though, the movie holds together, on par with other low-key but solidly constructed and enjoyable features like Cats Don't Dance.
Nemo's real tragedy is in the history of its production and release. Delays kept pushing the release date back (the project had started in 1981), and then the movie seemed to disappear entirely. It came out in Japan in 1988, and was released in a gorgeous laserdisc set in 1989. (The textured black box had the single word "Nemo" in McCay-era typography, with a single shaft of light illuminating Nemo clambering onto his bed, which is barely restrained by gravity—a reminder of how uninspired most DVD box design is these days.) In 1992 Nemo finally appeared with little fanfare in North American cinemas, less ten minutes of its running time, and disappeared just as quietly, despite decent reviews.
About a year and a half ago, Funimation released Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland on DVD, restoring it to its original running time. But that's only part of the story. They didn't include the laserdisc's extras, like a featurette on Winsor McCay's pioneering animation work (including the Little Nemo short film from 1911), and a now-commonplace featurette showing how voices and songs were recorded and dance routines were used for reference. They also didn't include the two short pilot films—consider them animated proofs of concept—directed by Yoshifumi Kondo and Osamu Dezaki. (You can see the Kondo-directed pilot film on Google Video.) Nor did they include the reproduced storyboards, model sheets and concept drawings. If you could see all these things, you would feel the same sense of loss I've felt for the last fourteen years, wondering what it would be like to see more collaborations like these.