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Slumberland movie review: Jason Momoa is magnetic in Netflix’s spectacular family film

Rating: 4 out of 5

Slumberland movie review: Visually ambitious and emotionally resonant, the new Netflix fantasy film finds Jason Momoa in particularly entertaining form.

slumberland movie reviewJason Momoa and Marlow Barkley in a still from Slumberland. (Photo: Netflix)

Maybe the reason why Netflix insists on releasing massive movies with zero marketing push isn’t because it wants to save on the spend, but because it doesn’t want to draw attention to itself in the event that the movies stink. And let’s face it, in a year when the streamer has given us big-budget bombs like The Gray Man and The School for Good and Evil, being non-committal about a $150 million fantasy film starring Jason Momoa as a horned lothario cosplaying Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler doesn’t seem like the worst idea.

But against all odds, this week’s blockbuster-level online event — Slumberland — is perhaps among the best children’s films of the holiday season. Even counting the recent Enola Holmes 2. Directed by Francis Lawrence — best known for three Hunger Games movies, I Am Legend, and the raunchiest film of Jennifer Lawrence’s career — Slumberland is a lush fantasy-adventure that combines an old-world charm with cutting-edge visual effects.

Newcomer Marlow Barkley stars as a young girl named Nemo, who lives in a romantic old lighthouse with her father, a grizzled seaman named Peter, played with the required twinkly-eyed charm by Kyle Chandler. They lead a fairytale life together, away from everybody else. But one stormy night, Peter goes out on a sudden rescue mission, and doesn’t return. A distraught Nemo is soon shipped off to live in the big city with her uncle Phil, played by Chris O’Dowd.

Estranged from his brother, Phil is his opposite in every way imaginable. While Peter would thrive outdoors, forage for his own food, and revel in breaking the rules, Phil lives an isolated life, eats out of packages, and sells doorknobs for a living. He isn’t cruel, but he’s boring.

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Nemo struggles to adjust to her new life in Phil’s impersonal apartment, but one night, she is visited in her dreams by Flip, a magical creature with a long mane of hair and a swarm of flies perennially hovering around him. Nemo immediately recognises him as the swashbuckling (and smelly) character from her father’s bedtime stories.

Even if his costume makes it seem like he could burst into a rendition of “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” at a moment’s notice, Momoa certainly seems to be channeling Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in his performance as Flip. Like Captain Jack, Flip is part conman, part silverfox. He introduces himself to one character as ‘a troubling mix of father-figure and pent-up masculinity’, and lurks in the land of dreams, where he hunts for mysterious pearls for reasons that aren’t made abundantly clear by the movie. To find these pearls, he tells a grieving Nemo, he needs her father’s secret map. And together, they go on an adventure through Slumberland, discovering strange new corners of the dreamscape along the way, while avoiding nightmarish ‘cops’. Nemo, of course, has her own reasons for tagging along. She wants to see her father again, even if it is in a dream.

The production design is spectacular, and not just in the Slumberland sequences. One would imagine that in a film like this, all the attention would be devoted to designing the dream lands — and the results are certainly stunning — but you’re left with nothing but admiration when you notice that the same level painstaking detail has gone into creating the interiors of the rustic lighthouse and the IKEA-inspired insides of Phil’s home.

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Lawrence has proven himself to be rather steady hand at handling large-scale action, without resorting to unnecessary CGI or choppy editing to overcompensate for a lack of vision. Unlike several of his previous films; the set-pieces in Slumberland are almost entirely set in computer-generated environments, but the action is easy to follow, the objectives are clear, and the focus is always on Nemo. And as engaging as Barkley and Momoa’s central performances are, it’s admirable of the film to avoid turning Uncle Phil into some sort of villainous presence. Instead, his arc is almost as well-defined as Nemo’s. I would imagine that adults would relate with Phil, while children latch on to Nemo (and, of course, the colourful Flip).

The narrative is straightforward, and the sincerity is palpable. At no point does Slumberland feel the need to wink at the audience, or make jokes that undermine its earnestness. Slumberland is a real movie, despite the visible artificiality of its dream world setting; enlivened by carefully written characters that go on sweeping personal journeys, a stirring score by Pinar Toprak, and plenty of spectacle.

Slumberland
Director – Francis Lawrence
Cast – Jason Momoa, Marlow Barkley, Kyle Chandler, Weruche Opia, Chris O’Dowd
Rating – 4/5

First published on: 20-11-2022 at 09:15 IST
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