Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Overlooked Movies: Little Nemo

So one thing I decided I’d do when I started this blog was to shed some light on movies that never really made it into the public consciousness, despite being thoughtfully crafted, and just plain enjoyable to watch. Today, I thought I’d cover the anime film Little Nemo, seeing as how I finally got to watch it over the weekend. If you want to see a trailer for it, click here.

Odds are that if you remember this film at all, it’s probably in the form of a half remembered advertisement you saw as a kid for one of those “non-Disney” cartoons we all shied away from. It never did get what one would call a major release, and even in the days of where old anime classics experienced a revival on DVD as anime became more popular in America, this film never got caught up in the hubbub.

For those unfamiliar with the character, Little Nemo began as a comic strip created by Winsor McCay in the early 20th century. The strip chronicled Nemo’s journeys through a fantastical realm known as Slumberland, and each strip usually ended with him waking up and falling out of bed. The strip was also notable for it’s brilliant colors and surrealistic imagery. Generally, they took up an entire page of the comic pages. (On a side note, supposedly one of the reasons Bill Waterson retired from writing Calvin & Hobbes was because he wanted to draw his comic in the style of Little Nemo, but newspapers wanted something smaller and with panels that could be more easily rearranged.)

The movie was produced by Japanese anime studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha, but was largely worked on by American talents such as Ray Bradbury, Chris Columbus (famous for Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter movies) and the Sherman Brothers, who previously worked on music for several Disney films. Despite being made in 1989, it didn’t make its way stateside until 1992. Strangely enough, the video game adaptation made its way stateside before that.

As for the plot of the movie, I’m going to be honest. It’s not exactly Disney. Even when Disney was in its pre-Little Mermaid slump, it was putting out stuff with more character development than this. The story is pretty simple. One night Nemo is visited in his bed by the personal entourage of Morpheus, the King of Dreams. The king requests that he comes to Slumberland to be his daughter’s playmate. He doesn’t explore Slumberland too long before a mischievous character named Flip accidentally gets Nemo to unleash an evil known as the Nightmare, and naturally Nemo’s the one who has to stop it.

I say it’s a simple story because there’s never really any motivation given for the characters actions. Morpheus’s invitation to Nemo is completely arbitrary (not to mention the level of responsibility he gets entrusted with) and there’s no reason given for why Flip creates the amount of havoc he does, other than it helps move the story along.

What the film lacks in story, it certainly makes up in style. The film manages to effortlessly toe the line of depicting a world that is strange and surreal, without confusing the viewer. The world in which the story is set frequently transforms into something completely different in a way that perfectly mimics the non sequitur nature of dreams. For example, the opening sequence has Nemo wake up in his bed, discovering he can fly it out the window. He flies around the city, but suddenly finds himself among unfamiliar ruins, hounded by a speeding train.

Even the non-surreal visuals are incredible. Slumberland, as depicted in the movie, is a world that resembles the most extravagant palaces of Europe if they were the size of entire cities. Then there’s the animation itself. Like many anime movies, everything is drawn with such fluid detail that even the way smoke is animated, it seems to have character.

Despite it’s simple story, the whole package is overall pretty enjoyable. I suspect that had I seen it as a kid, this movie would have been something I watched over and over. Although it’s clearly targeted for younger audiences, this movie is a good example of how to make a family film parents can enjoy that doesn’t involve slyly sneaking in “adult” references, or tries to hock some product to kids. Aside from a scene halfway through the movie where the Nightmare breaks into Slumberland, it’s as family friendly as one could ask for. Granted that scene in question is a bit freaky and I’m sure it would have given me bad dreams as a kid. In fact, I think they cut it out of the initial American release, but it’s not that bad.

Unfortunately, Little Nemo is still a bit hard to find, so unless you use Netflix, Blockbuster.com, or your local library has a good inter-library loan system, it’s going to be a hard one to track down. On the plus side, it’s pretty cheap to buy, as Amazon.com has it listed for about $8. Yes, that’s twice the cost of a rental, but if you’re an anime fan or a parent looking for a quality family film, it’s worth owning.

Hopefully in upcoming years this movie will gain some level of notoriety and be easier to find.


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