I have had an inordinate fondness for "Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland" ever since I found it by chance back in college. Granted, the story is kind of dumb and predictable, the songs aren't that great, and while none of the characters are particularly interesting, Nemo himself is essentially a non-entity. But the visuals kept me coming back. Seriously, look at this:
I was a little familiar with the works of Windsor McCay since obviously he gets a mention in every history of animation book (his "Little Nemo" was essentially a lavishly illustrated story released chapter-by-chapter as a feature in the Sunday newspaper comics and in his spare time he recruited the characters from the strip so he could invent the animated film as we know it) and my school's library had a decent book collection of the strips. Scenes like the above blew me away with how vividly they recreated McCay's insanely detailed style and "whatever, this is a kid's dream" attitude. And so, for years, I assumed that this was a tribute to McCay made by a random animation studio that was quietly released in the early 90's to stunning indifference, and that I had the good luck to discover like a lost treasure hiding in the Children and Family aisle of the local Blockbuster.
Boy, did I ever not know the half of it.
The unassuming "Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland" has one of the most truly astonishing histories of any feature film, animated or otherwise. Here's a brief list of people who were involved at one time or other during the at least ten years this film was in production: Ray Bradbury, John Canemaker, the Sherman brothers, Ken Anderson, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Jean Giraud - better known as Moebius, and Brian Froud. The contributions of the latter two are most obvious (although I couldn't help but notice this time out that King Morpheus shares Ollie Johnston's great affection for trains). The overall look of Slumberland as we fly over it is very reminiscent of Moebius' art, and at one point our main characters are joined by a crowd of extremely Froud-ian amorphous goblins who appear to have walked right off the set of "Labyrinth", and who contribute very little to the story - but I don't care because whoever animated their various transformations was going for broke. (Meanwhile, note how Nemo is Bland Anime Boy Protagonist Model 3.)
Oh, and Hiyao Miyazaki and fellow Ghiblian Isao Takahata were involved very early on. Aside from an overall Ghibli-pretty look to the final film, their influence isn't really felt and allegedly they hated every minute of the production they were there for. It turns out that part of the reason "Nemo" was in production for ten years is because there were two production companies working on this film, one in Japan and one in America. The animation was primarily done by TMS in Japan, and the end result is therefore essentially an Anime that is occasionally -and very conspicuously- interrupted by things that studios think people want out of a western animated feature (loads of songs, written by the Shermans on one of their off days so they're still hideous earworms, and note Nemo's highly marketable pet squirrel in the above screenshot.) The production was so troubled that the film was finished in the late 80's (the closest thing I could find to an official release date was, in fact, 1989...ish), but wasn't released in America until well after it's own video game adaptation. This has had the odd effect of many fans of "Little Nemo: Dream Master" (known as "Doki Doki Panic" in Japan*) having no idea that the game is more directly based on a movie than the Windsor McCay comic.
With all this in mind, I am sad to report that the DVD version of "Nemo" has, like, nothing for special features (reportedly the BluRay fixes this a little). However, the film itself is very different from the version I watched years and years ago. It turns out that the original American distribution company cut many scenes out of their release of the film, reportedly to secure a G-rating. These are all reinstated in the DVD version. In hindsight the only edit from the American theatrical/VHS version that even kind of makes sense is the shuffling of the opening credits to the back-end of the movie. None of the reinstated scenes are scary (if they do frighten your child, then depending on how old they are, you may have to let your child get out more) or offensive (the film does a very good job of avoiding the... "it was a different time"-y elements of the comic that you may have noticed/winced at in the original McCay animated short). I'd suppose that they were cut for time, but most of the cuts are only seconds long, and some of the longer scenes (and by "longer", I mean they average a minute or so) actually help certain parts of the movie make a little more sense. One of the very weirdest cuts is a seconds-long scene where Nemo rides an elevator that is controlled by a "Spirited Away"-looking caterpillar thing, which finally explains Tress MacNeille's mysterious "Elevator Creature" credit in the edited version's cast list.
All in all, "Nemo" is a strange being indeed, but I highly recommend it and not just for Ghibli completists. For more in this series, click this link or the "Random 90's Animation Month" tag below.
* - I'm joking! The real original title is the even sillier "Pajama Hero Nemo".
Sketch of the Day! I'd like to wish everyone a very happy holiday season free from creepy surveillance elves.