Movie Curiosities: Slumberland / My Father’s Dragon

Two coming-of-age fantasy adventures for all ages, both released on Netflix. Oh, and they both feature Chris O’Dowd in supporting roles. Buckle up, everyone, it’s time for a double feature!

Slumberland comes to us from director Francis Lawrence (most famous for shepherding the Hunger Games film adaptations) with a screenplay from writers/exec producers David Guion and Michael Handelman (late of the third Night at the Museum picture). As for the animated My Father’s Dragon, that one was directed by Nora Twomey, who previously helmed such magnificent 2D animated films as The Secret of Kells and The Breadwinner. The screenplay for Dragon comes to us from Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, anyone?), alongside the late John Morgan.

Slumberland is a loose adaptation of the classic “Little Nemo” comic strips from over a century ago, starring Marlow Barkley as a gender-flipped Nemo. In this iteration, Nemo grew up on an island where she helps her father (played by Kyle Chandler) man a lighthouse. The father predictably dies within the first ten minutes, and she’s sent to live with her father’s estranged brother (Philip, played by Chris O’Dowd). Thus Nemo is whisked away to live in an unnamed city, where she has to adapt to life in a new apartment and school with other kids and so on and so forth.

By comparison, My Father’s Dragon (based on a book by Ruth Stiles Gannett) is about young Elmer, voiced by Jacob Tremblay. He grew up in a rural town running a grocery store with his mother (Dela, voiced by Golshifteh Farahani) until a horrible economic downturn forces the store to close. Thus Elmer and Dela move out to… ahem Nevergreen City and take up residence in a ramshackle downtown apartment. The both of them want to open up a new store, but Dela can’t seem to make ends meet no matter what she does and Elmer is getting impatient.

I feel compelled to add that the “father” of the title is Elmer. His daughter (voiced by Mary Kay Place) is our narrator, who plays no point in the story, is never seen, and we only hear from her at the very beginning and ending of the film.

Let’s pause and take stock of what we’ve got so far. Both films are about kids who are forced by some horrible loss to go from familiar and nurturing rural environments to go live in a big uncaring city. Both protagonists have a single parent figure (Elmer’s mother and Nemo’s uncle, so we’re clear) who are well-intentioned and put in every possible effort, yet they’re frustrated because even their best never seems to be enough. Both protagonists are motivated to go back to the way things were before they inevitably learn to let go and grow past their beginnings. As such, both movies have explicit themes about courage and integrity and perseverance in spite of all fear and having the humility to ask for help when it’s needed and so on and so forth.

But the fine details make all the difference.

To start with, Nemo had the good fortune to land in a gorgeous upscale apartment, she’s going to a fancy private school, and there isn’t a bully in sight. Granted, her new friend Jamal (Chris D’Silva) is a bit of a dork, and her school counselor (Ms. Arya, played by India de Beaufort) is an airhead who can’t offer anything more than empty platitudes, but at least they’re trying. By contrast, Elmer and Dela landed in a city that clearly doesn’t want them. Their landlady (voiced by Rita Moreno) is depressingly apathetic about the rough times her new tenants are going through, and Elmer quickly runs into a trio of bullies so desperate to make their own money that they’ll fight Elmer for every coin he’s got.

While the residents of Nemo’s city are more sympathetic and relatable, that sadly diminishes the stakes of her film. There’s definitely a sense that Nemo could live a full and happy life if she was capable of simply abandoning her quest and moving on with her grief, which is admittedly the whole point of the film. Yet Elmer’s journey makes a lot more sense — his new home is so crappy, of course he’d be so desperate to go back to the way things were. Plus, while Elmer’s neighbors in Nevergreen City (I can’t get past that name, freaking seriously.) are assholes, their desperate need for money in tough economic times at least makes them assholes for sympathetic reasons.

Another crucial difference concerns the parent figures themselves. Both of them are stuck dealing with the stress of trying to raise a child in an unfamiliar environment, but at least Elmer’s mother doesn’t have the burden of starting from scratch. Philip had never even met his niece before, and now he’s stuck with her even though he’s got no idea if he’s even capable of raising a young girl. Furthermore, while Dela is mourning the loss of her business, Philip is mourning the loss of the brother he lost touch with several years ago and will never see again.

Philip is given so much more pathos, and he’s given much more screen time to work with. Couple this with a spirited performance from O’Dowd (easily the better O’Dowd performance between the two pictures) and he’s the more compelling character by a mile. The unfortunate downside is that Philip lives in the real world. Sure, it’s nice that the film gives us a solid supporting character to spend time with in the real world, but spending time in the real world isn’t why we’re here.

Which brings us, at long last, to the escapist fantasy aspect.

In Dragon, Elmer eventually runs away and finds himself on the city docks. Long story short, he meets some talking animals (Don’t ask.) who solicit his help in freeing a dragon (Boris, voiced by Gaten Matarazzo) who’s been trapped on the faraway Wild Island. Elmer sets out to free the dragon, in hopes that Boris can somehow help raise the necessary money to open a new shop. (Who wouldn’t pay to see a real fire-breathing dragon, after all?) Trouble is, Wild Island is sinking and its talking animal residents are at risk of drowning.

The story goes that every 100 years, a dragon has to fly out and lift up Wild Island to stop it from sinking into the ocean. At the beginning of our story, Boris has been tied to the island and forced to pull it upwards for however long a time, yet the island is still sinking. This shouldn’t be necessary for another 100 years. Something is clearly wrong here. Thus Elmer cuts Boris free and the both of them journey out together to try and find some answers.

Meanwhile, over on Slumberland, Nemo discovers that her father’s old stories about the world of dreams were all true. During a dream, she meets up with her dad’s old partner in crime, name of Flip (Jason Momoa). Together, they find a map of the dream world that Flip and Nemo’s father had previously stolen.

Legend has it that somewhere deep in the Sea of Nightmares (the title says it all, really) are magic pearls capable of granting any wish within Slumberland. Nemo wants a pearl so she can see her father again, Flip wants a pearl for his own selfish reasons, so they use their map to navigate their way through different dreams on their way to the Sea of Nightmares. Hilarity ensues.

Each movie has a weak second act, but for different reasons.

First of all, both movies are heavily dependent on flimsy logic and rules that make absolutely no sense, and both films are heavily dependent on their fantastical settings to suspend the audience’s disbelief. The crucial difference is that Slumberland outright tells us from the open that everything is a dream, so there’s a lot more leeway. By comparison, Dragon only slightly implies that Elmer could be dreaming or making up everything after he runs away from the city. That ambiguity makes for flimsier world-building and a thinner narrative in this particular instance, most especially when Boris gets his big climactic revelation right out of freaking nowhere.

That said, Slumberland has the audacity to suggest that the magic pearls might not even be real, which directly undercuts the entire point of this quest. What’s worse, we’re explicitly told that nightmares — the big scary fog monsters that threaten our heroes at every turn — can be defeated simply by showing the courage to stand up to them, letting us know well in advance that this climax will be a grave disappointment. Perhaps worst of all is that by virtue of the movie we’re watching, we already know exactly how the film will end (ie: Nemo has to bury her dead father and move on) regardless of whether she gets the pearls or not, so the stakes of the plot are entirely moot.

By contrast, Dragon has the good sense to reinforce the stakes at every opportunity. Not only do we plainly understand why Elmer wants to open a new store with his mother, but the film pulls no punches in showing that the island is sinking, homes are being destroyed, and lives are at stake. It’s not just about getting Elmer back to the way things were, it’s about finding some way of saving Wild Island in such a way that Boris doesn’t have to labor like Sisyphus for the rest of his life and nobody else on the island has to fucking die.

Another crucial point is that every step on Elmer’s journey is clearly and directly tied to his own character growth. We’ve got a crocodile (Alan Cumming) obsessed with protecting his children. We’ve got a pair of tigers (voiced by Leighton Meester and Spence Moore II) who can’t do anything productive because they spend too much time fighting with each other. There’s a rhino (Dianne Wiest) who’s big and strong yet woefully incapable of providing for her child. From the moment Elmer sets foot on the island, every character that he meets and every obstacle that he faces imparts some lesson he can take with him back home.

Compare that to Slumberland. First of all, unlike Elmer stuck on a remote island, Nemo can and does bounce between the waking world and the dream world multiple times throughout the picture. And every time Nemo wakes up, we’re left with the question of why she doesn’t simply stop her quest with the knowledge that she could do so with no consequences.

More importantly, the film only takes us through a limited set of dreams. Not counting Nemo’s initial lighthouse dream — a carbon copy of the set from the first ten minutes — we’ve got…

  1. A dance floor in which all the people are comprised of butterflies.
  2. A truck driving through a city made of glass.
  3. An especially ornate bathroom.
  4. A snowy mountain range with giant geese.
  5. A bureaucratic office decorated in 1970s chic.
  6. The Sea of Nightmares, which is basically the bottom of the ocean.

That’s it. That’s pretty much all we get of Slumberland. While the production design is admittedly beautiful, each dream is sparsely populated and all the other dreamers are essentially cardboard cutouts. More to the point, these dreams only exist as unrelated points on the way to the Sea of Nightmares, thus our characters rush through them as quickly as possible. The dreams could be shuffled around in any order, or even swapped out for something else entirely, and it would make no difference whatsoever. With one or two exceptions, none of it has anything to do with Nemo or Flip or anything they’re going through.

What might be an even bigger problem is that because the film cycles through the same handful of dreams, and cycles through them so quickly, and the dream sequences are inhabited by so few characters, Slumberland feels way way WAAAY too small in scope. Considering how much of this film depends on selling Slumberland as this massively important space running on a multitude of finely-tuned moving parts so all the cosmos doesn’t collapse, the filmmakers’ failure to sell all of that is a fatal error.

But then we get to the other big weak point of the second acts: Our protagonists’ guides through their respective fantasy worlds.

To be clear, there’s a reason why Jason Momoa got top billing on Slumberland. He was tasked with carrying the entire damn movie on his shoulders, and he goes through the whole running time like he’s auditioning for the title role in a remake/sequel to Beetlejuice. Hell, there are so many scenes in which young Marlow Barkley can’t really do much of anything except play off his energy. That said, at least Momoa is effortlessly charismatic and while Flip may be a two-faced scoundrel, he’s competent and bursting with personality in a movie where both traits are few and far between.

By contrast, Boris the Dragon is completely fucking useless. He’s funny, sure, but that goofy charm wears off quickly upon the realization that he’s a coward too weak and stupid to do anything on his own. But eventually, the movie whips up a diabolically clever reveal: That’s the point. From the second act onward, Elmer is put in his mother’s position, forced to look after someone as well-intentioned and ineffectual as he was in the first act. It’s a frankly ingenious setup that leads to some powerful moments of character development for Elmer and Boris in the third act.

Let’s move on to the antagonists. In Dragon, we’ve got Ian McShane as the voice of Saiwa, a gorilla who wants to keep Boris tied up and carrying the island because it’s a tried-and-true method to make sure the island doesn’t sink. Never mind that the island isn’t staying afloat for the next hundred years like it should be, Saiwa can’t show the least bit of doubt or the resulting island-wide panic will kill everyone faster than the ocean will. Yet it’s made abundantly clear that Saiwa isn’t engaging in deception and slave labor for the sake of his own ego or arrogance — indeed, we clearly see Saiwa putting his own life in danger multiple times to save the other animals in his care.

Over on Slumberland, we’ve got Agent Green (Weruche Opia) representing the Bureau of Subconscious Activity (BOSA). Yes, it turns out that Slumberland is run by a massive bureaucracy with a law enforcement division that’s been chasing down Flip for years. I feel compelled to add that in the source material, Slumberland was ruled over by King Morpheus. If the goal was to create a whimsical fantasyland, swapping out a magical kingdom for cops and pencil-pushers definitely feels like a step backward.

The other unfortunate drawback of a bureaucrat for our main antagonist is that Green never registers as anything more than a small cog in a much larger machine. She’s here to do her job and speak for the larger system, that’s it. Opia’s got screen presence, sure, but that’s not enough to sell Green as a character in her own right.

Which brings me to the matter of the overall cast. In Slumberland, we’ve got Jason Momoa, Marlow Barkley, and Chris O’Dowd holding up the entire picture. Weruche Opia shows up a few brief times, Kyle Chandler is there for the beginning and the ending, India de Beaufort and Chris d’Silva are there for maybe three scenes at school, and that’s it. The whole movie is disproportionately dependent on three actors — most especially Momoa — holding up the entire picture. I can’t possibly stress enough how badly this hurts the overall picture, making it feel so terribly small when it should be epic in scope.

What’s the cast like over on My Father’s Dragon? Well, we’ve got Jacob Tremblay playing our lead character, already a seasoned professional who’s capably anchored several films at such a young age. He’s surrounded by such talents as Ian McShane, Whoopi Goldberg, Judy Greer, Jackie Earle Haley, Leighton Meester, Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno, Charlyne Yi, Chris O’Dowd… the list goes on and on. So many wonderful actors in this picture and they all sound like they’re having a blast.

Ultimately, the big difference between these two movies is that while they’re both highly imaginative and beautifully designed pictures that express their themes in potent ways, My Father’s Dragon used fantastic visuals as a means to a better story while Slumberland treated the fantastic visuals as an end in itself. It’s like the makers of Slumberland tried to solve every problem by throwing money and/or Jason Momoa at it, only to realize too late that Momoa alone is no substitute for a sizable cast and no amount of CGI can ever substitute for a decent script. I know this source material can make for a fantasy adventure on an epic scale, and gender-swapping the lead was a great start, but it’s nowhere near enough when the whole movie feels so small.

Though My Father’s Dragon has its weak points, the film is still a moving and charming little picture that works remarkably well as a coming-of-age fantasy fit for all ages. Neither one of these films is a masterpiece, nor is either one completely without merit, but My Father’s Dragon is unquestionably the superior film.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: Slumberland / My Father’s Dragon

  1. Interesting approach I haven’t seen you do before, contrasting and comparing two similar recently released movies. Sometimes it happens that movies that are very similar to each other get released within the same time frame. We’ve had this happen with Antz and A Bug’s Life, and with Armageddon and Deep Impact.
    It sounds to me that My Father’s Dragon might be the better film, with better stakes, better character arcs, and so on. Might be worth checking out when I have the time.

    1. I’ve done double features before (as with C’mon C’mon / Boy Erased and Toy Story 4 / Child’s Play remake) but so many circumstances have to perfectly line up in a way that’s exceedingly rare. Comes in really handy when I’m so far backlogged, though.

      And yeah, My Father’s Dragon is no masterpiece, but anything from Nora Twomey is well worth your time.

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