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Little Nemo

Dreams are magical things. We can travel to faraway lands and still return home just in time for breakfast. The only limit is our imagination.

As children, we have all kinds of strange and wonderful dreams. Some may border on nightmares while others feel so real that we might like to stay in bed a little while longer. The thing Little Nemo and I have in common is that we are both dreamers.

My first passport to the dreamworld of Little Nemo was the 1989 film Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.

The movie was one of my all-time childhood favorites. The animation was stunning, thanks to its cohort of Japanese animators. TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsha) is the same animation company that made Akira. The characters are fun and quirky and the action sequences are breath taking. It is the perfect flight of fantasy. Part of my connection to the film was that I wanted to be Nemo.  

Slumberland is essentially a utopia. It's all fun and games with zoo animals, huge trains, and hot air balloons. Nemo also gets the invitation of a lifetime, to be the official playmate for the princess. 

Although I had seen the movie once or twice growing up, for most of my childhood I would wonder if this movie actually existed or if parts of it I had dreamt up on my own. The movie is highly underrated and for the most part, a forgotten piece of magic.   

The movie had a troubled production and underwent many changes. Several directors such as Chris Columbus joined and left the project. Hayao Miyazaki of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro fame was involved in the early stages of the film and described it as "the worst experience of my professional career." 

Critics mainly point out the flawed pacing of the movie. The most blatant example is an ill-timed musical number towards the end of the movie when our heroes are traveling through Nightmare Land. However, for a movie that shifts between reality and the dreamworld, I believe it does a stellar job of telling a cohesive story. 

A crucial element that I think most people miss about Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland is the moral which ties everything together. 

The moral of the story is to keep your promises.

In the movie, what happens in the real world ties directly into Nemo's dreams. For example, the circus parade is Nemo's inspiration for Slumberland. 

At the beginning of the movie, Nemo breaks his promise to his mother and gets into the pie in the fridge. In Slumberland, he breaks his promise to King Morpheus (albeit with pressure from Flip) and opens the door that holds back the Nightmare King. After waking up and realizing the error of his ways, Nemo apologizes to his mother for trying to take the pie. His parents then agree to take him to see the circus. 

Keeping your promises is one of the most important lessons for children. Being responsible is the first step in becoming an adult. By breaking his promise, Nemo faces considerable danger. The Nightmare King is a pretty fearsome foe and all of Slumberland is thrown into peril. I remember yelling "No, Nemo, no!" while he is unlocking the door that holds back the Nightmare King.  

Little Nemo began to slip into the depths of my waning child memory, that is until I found definitive proof of the movie's existence- Little Nemo: The Dream Master

I remember playing it for the first time at my cousin's house. I asked them if they had seen the movie and nobody had.The Dream Master is one of the best movie based games with NES cut scenes and characters from the film such as Princess Camille. 

The Dream Master is a delight to play. The levels are colorful, the music is charming, and the gameplay is unique. Instead of running from left to right and Goomba-stomping everything in your path, this game has a much more creative approach. 

Many of the keys needed to open the door to the next dream stage cannot be reached by Nemo alone. The little guy needs help from some friendly animals such as a frog, salamander, mole, bee, etc. By tossing three candies into their mouths, Nemo wins the favor of an animal companion which can him help reach tricky spots by climbing a wall, digging underground, flying, etc.   

The game is an endearing classic, not just as a faithful adaptation of the movie, but also as one of the greatest gems on the NES console.

As I got older, the magic of Little Nemo was lost to me.

As my focus shifted towards more adult issues, my dreams became more grounded in reality. Dreams became a continuation of daily life. Instead of visiting a magical land, my dreams took me back to the workplace and other familiar locales. 

Darkness, or no dream at all, was the most common dream. 

It wasn't until I discovered the origins of Little Nemo that I was able to return to Slumberland.


Winsor McCay (1869-1934) was a gifted cartoonist and a pioneer in the world of animation. He was able to draw not only with remarkable speed but with amazing talent as well. He wrote several different comic strips in his lifetime and even political cartoons. As McCay's material shows, he had a powerful imagination. He would go on to develop several different animation techniques that would become the foundation of animated movies. Walt Disney himself said that he was greatly inspired by the works of Winsor McCay.

Winsor was also a showman. He performed various Vaudeville acts and became a sort of wizard by including animation featurettes into his performances. One of his most lauded displays of the power of animation was a short called Gertie the Dinosaur.  

Little Nemo was one of Winsor McCay's most beloved creations. It all began as a full page weekly comic strip for the New York Herald. Each week, a new issue of Little Nemo would arrive to the delight of children and adults alike.

It's hard to imagine the excitement it would bring during the turn of the century. Nowadays, it is somewhat difficult to find the right medium to read the Little Nemo comics as originally intended because the resolution is so big. Again, the comic strip would take up AN ENTIRE PAGE of a newspaper.

This is just one panel from the comic

The basic story for the Little Nemo comic strips is that in each one, Nemo is whisked away to Slumberland where he is called upon for an adventure. He traverses M.C. Escher-style worlds, meets several creatures and some recurring characters such as Flip the clown. 

Each panel is exquisitely crafted with labyrinthine dreamscapes and exotic architecture. The range of Winsor McCay's artistic talents are incredible. His imagination would be transposed to each panel, taking us along for the ride. 

The main shtick is that once things start to go awry in Slumberland Little Nemo wakes up and nearly falls out of bed. His mother/father come in and scold him with the recurring gag of he shouldn't have eaten cheese or some other food before bed. 

Isn't that how dreams are? As soon as things get really interesting or too scary, the alarm goes off and we wake up. How many incomplete quests have we awoken from only to try desperately to get back to sleep to pick up where we have left off? 

The Little Nemo comics are vastly original and entertaining. Each comic strip is a completely different adventure. I have a greater appreciation for the animated movie because of how faithfully it captured many of the characters and scenes from the comic. It is no wonder that Little Nemo was a massive inspiration for generations.

And the train doesn't stop here. Little Nemo continues to spark the imaginations of children and adults everywhere. I'm very glad that the magic of Little Nemo has stayed with me. 

Every time we go to sleep we have a chance to visit Slumberland. 
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retroboy Posted on Oct 08, 2018 at 06:26 PM

I missed out on little nemo

onipar Posted on Aug 13, 2015 at 03:40 PM

Such a great article! It's funny too because I just ordered the 5-pack of NES games here on RD, and one of the games I chose was Little Nemo. I don't think I've ever played the game before though, now I'm really looking forward to it.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Jun 24, 2015 at 05:33 AM

I remember seeing the trailer for Little Nemo and My Neighbor Totoro a lot back in the day, but never watched either one. I was less about whimsy and more about sci-fi action. I have since seen some Winsor McCay inspired art though and I love the detail of his work.

My wife, who wasn't so media savvy as a child counts Little Nemo: Dream Master as one of her favorite NES games next to Super Mario Bros. 3. I actually found her a copy of the game at a used book store a few months back and she was pretty excited. She still knew all the old secrets of the gameplay and I have to agree that it's a well made game for the era.

echidna64 Posted on Jun 09, 2015 at 05:20 PM

Thanks man, I had a lot of fun writing it!

Vaporman87 Posted on Jun 08, 2015 at 03:55 PM

Man... here we are in the slow doldrums of Summer, yet echidna manages to come along and bring us a truly great article. I loved reading this.

I had done a little research on Winsor McCay prior to reading this article, so I knew a little about what I might read. It was great to get it from your perspective though, as it gives me a much better appreciation for Little Nemo.

I can relate with everything you mention regarding dreams, how they have changed, and how they can make us feel. McCay used his talent to really tap into those experiences in a potent way. We all dream, so nobody is excluded from the subject matter.

Thanks echidna! This made my day.

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