A review requested by Kelleson, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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It took a hell of a lot of birthing pains to get 1989's Little Nemo (AKA Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, AKA Nemo, AKA ニモ) into theaters, and it's kind of impressive how many of them you could figure out just from watching it. The basic situation is that Fujioka Yutaka, film producer and founder of animation studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha, wanted to make a feature-length adaptation of Winsor McKay's comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, and 12 years after he started trying to put it together, it came out. That's a lot of years, and they were spent with one artist after the next cycling into the project, growing confused or disillusioned or angry, and cycling back out (most prominently, directors Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, who had both worked with TMS successfully in the '70s and early '80s, were tapped to direct before dropping the project in dismay - Miyazaki later called it the worst professional experience of his life). Animation experts from both Japan and the United States were called in to develop the story and style, with final writing credit going to Chris Columbus & Richard Outten, from a story by graphic artist Jean "Mœbius" Giraud (the actual situation is much more complicated than those credits, of course), and with a director on either side of the Pacific, in the forms of Hata Masami and William Hurtz. The end result is a strange intermediary form, half anime, half Disney knock-off, but very much distinct from either of those things. If you've ever seen an American television program with Japanese animation, it's that look (also, there's an extremely good chance that what you saw was animated by TMS; the studio worked on several of the most prestigious Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon series in the 1980s and 1990s, including DuckTales and Animaniacs), only Little Nemo had a budget that would make any TV producer swoon, so there's a level of polish and ambition on display that feels strangely at odds with the style. It's a bizarre, indescribable, inexplicable object, I mean to say - so let's try to describe and explicate it, shall we?

It's a fairly close approximation of McKay's strip, which loosely told the narrative of how over the course of many nights' worth of dreams, Nemo was invited to be the playmate of the Princess of Slumberland, and he made his way through a fantastic world populated by strange figures, falling out of bed every night and waking up in a tangle of sheets. That's basically what we get, highly compressed, in the first half of the film, which even goes so far as to take place somewhere vaguely in the first decade of the 20th Century (the strip ran, with interruptions, between 1905 and 1927). We first meet Nemo (voiced by Gabriel Demon in the English dub, Gono Takuma in Japanese - I have no idea what the film's "official" language is meant to be, but the script was written by English speakers, and that's how I watched it) in the middle of a bad dream about a locomotive bearing down on his house, and shortly thereafter learn that his parents are a bit worn out from all his running about and very mildly bad behavior, and none of this will inform the rest of the movie.

We also learn that he has a pet flying squirrel wearing little red goggle, Icarus (Danny Mann), and this will inform the rest of the movie, inasmuch as Icarus enters Nemo's dream with him and does nothing of value, but provides much in the way of meager comic relief. This is one of the weirdest parts of the whole movie, somehow: I get the need to put a slightly anthropomorphic funny animal in a movie trying to play in the American animation sandbox, but putting that creature in the "real world" scenes of a movie that will take place almost entirely in a dream world is completely baffling to me. If you're trying to separate out physical reality and dream logic (and while this isn't a primary goal, it's something the film does a bit of), shouldn't you, like, separate them? I'm sorry, I have undoubtedly allowed Icarus to get into my head too much. But it's a very, very strange choice, anyway.

The action from here goes precisely as it ought to: after his parents are both too busy to take him to see the circus parade, Nemo falls asleep and an even more extravagant celebration comes to him: Professor Genius (Rene Auberjonois/Kitamura Koichi) has arrived via dirigible to whisk him away to Slumberland, to serve as playmate to Princess Camille (Laura Mooney/Kasahira Hiroko), and then to be made heir to the throne of King Morpheus (Bernard Erhard/Utsumi Kenji). That slipperiness concerning the actual storyline, and the bland acceptance with which Nemo shifts from "play with (ew) a girl" to "become crown prince" is one of the places where Little Nemo best gets at the fungibility of a dream, the sense of clicking neatly from one reality to another. The film doesn't especially go in for surrealism, the one thing I'd imagine an animated film about dreams would be especially eager to play with, but it is a pretty fine evocation of dream logic even so, with hazy geography and storytelling filling in for the relatively sedate visuals.

Ay, the visuals... it's hard to know what to make of the animation in Little Nemo. I mean, it's not hard at all, actually: it's as easy as saying "Japanese animators doing a Disney impression". But that only explains what we're looking at, not the very odd impression it leaves. TMS was a solid studio, any way you cut it: any company that had both Miyazaki and Takahata on staff had every reason to be very good at making animation. And besides , the film TMS had released directly before this was Akira, and this is where my head snapped to attention, at least. Any old Japanese animation company trying to do Western-style children's animation, sure; but the company behind Akira doing Western-style children's animation, that's discomfiting to me on some level I have a hard time articulating. Akira is just about the most polished piece of Japanese animation that existed by the end of the 1980s, but not at all in the direction of Disney-style animation. Seeing Little Nemo try to apply that polish on such a different aesthetic is subtly but deeply askew, like watching a great ballet dancer doing a tango. Same art form, basically, but the movements are all different and they come from a different place. Little Nemo uses the devices of American animation, and it executes them well, but it executes them weirdly. Like, there's a musical number (oh yes, it's a musical - one of the other things about it that's American. The songs are by the Sherman Brothers, of all people. Not their best work), that involves several people spinning Nemo around and dancing with him and what have you, and you can see the squash-and-stretch, the gag structure, the rhythm of a Disney movie, and the poses and expressions are distinctly anime. It's fascinating, whatever the hell it is.

That's kind of the best summary I can give for the film as a whole: it's fascinating. Whatever the hell it is. I mentioned a bit ago the "first half" of Little Nemo, because the second half is almost completely different: same characters, same inscrutable approach to animation, but now it's moody and grim and full of family-friendly horror, as the Nightmare King (Bill Martin/Ishida Taro) shows up to make a nuisance (the fluid shift from bouncy kiddie comedy in the first half to creepy kiddie horror in the second, a massive shift in tone that just kind of happens, is another one of those "dream logic" narrative flourishes). If the first half of the movie is Japanese artists trying to make an American animated feature, the second half is more like Japanese artists trying to make a Japanese animated feature in an American style, and if I try to describe that, I'll give myself an aneurysm.

What this does do for the film, and no mistake, is give it an incredibly authentic sense of otherworldly dreaminess. The strange neither-fish-nor-fowl quality in the character animation makes it feel almost like something you can recognise, but it doesn't quite get there, but also while you're watching it, it feels exactly right and normal. Like, yes, this is how animated films work, with these strange narrative leaps and these visually over-articulated characters, and this feeling of fluffy weightlessness despite all of the visual cues that gravity is fully in place and the characters have mass. In the moment, it makes sense - like a dream.

Whether this means that Little Nemo is ultimately satisfying is impossible to say. Many of the widely diverse array of people who stepped away from the project at some point, including Takahata, George Lucas, and Chuck Jones, felt that it suffered from giving Nemo no personality nor any sort of character arc, and they weren't at all wrong. It's not that it's an episodic story, since it doesn't really have "episodes", but it does have a tendency to sweep Nemo from place to place and situation to situation without much explanation or justification. If you go in look for a tidy story, you're absolutely not going to get one, and if you're looking for a coherent emotional experience, I don't think you're going to get one of those, either. But it's a wild ride, pulling you around willy nilly in a way that somehow feels very comfortable and natural despite making no real sense, and it's compulsively watchable. It is, at any rate, a truly weird movie, and there are fewer truly weird animated features than you might think, so I'm all for it.