The fascinating flop that spawned Capcom's Little Nemo: The Dream Master
Why The Dream Master's ambitious source material deserves a second look.
Little Nemo: The Dream Master ranks up there as one of the more memorable b-tier classics on the NES. It's a colorful, creative platformer with an interesting central mechanic, and one developed by Capcom at the height of their 8-bit powers. But even with the goodwill Little Nemo generates, its source material doesn't bring up the same fond memories: not Windsor McCay's ancient newspaper comic strip, but the 1989 animated movie, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. That's right: Little Nemo: The Dream Master is an adaptation of an adaptation.
That's no big secret or anything, mind you; it's just something that happens to get overlooked--entirely because Adventures in Slumberland is a very overlooked movie. And it's not hard to figure out why. Adventures in Slumberland came into being as an ultra-expensive, ultra-ambitious multinational project from one of Japan's most esteemed animation studios, and ended up a massive flop that nearly destroyed said studio. After premiering in Japan in the Summer of 1989 alongside Kiki's Delivery Service, it eventually limped into American theaters in 1992 with an English dub. (Though it must have been a small release--I remember seeing it for the first time in VHS form at my local video store and could only think, "They based a movie off of that old NES game?")
Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland was the creation of Tokyo Movie Shinsha, or TMS. More specifically, TMS's Yutaka Fujioka, who dreamed of having a hit animated movie in America, and thought Little Nemo would be the property to make that happen. TMS had plenty of success in Japan with TV series like Lupin III, but Fujioka wanted an international hit, and acquired Nemo's rights from the descendants of creator Windsor McCay to make it happen. And, looking at the history of animation, Nemo seems like a perfect fit, what with McCay having personally created some of the earliest animated films (including one starring Little Nemo).
Thankfully, it isn't hard to track down a copy of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. TMS posted the entire thing on their YouTube channel, though a Blu-Ray does exist if you want to go that far. And, from the opening credits alone, Adventures in Slumberland really sets you up for something great. Story by French comic creator Moebius! Concept by Ray Bradbury! Songs by the Disney duo, The Sherman Brothers! Add in the fact that other talented folks like George Lucas (who didn't always suck) and Hayao Miyazaki (of Studio Ghibli) were briefly associated with the project, and you should have a movie poised to be the next Wizard of Oz.
In the end, Adventures in Slumberland is just... fine. It doesn't reach the same lows as latter Don Bluth dreck like A Troll in Central Park or The Pebble and the Penguin, but it also doesn't reach the Disney heights it aspires to. If anything, it's just fun to look at: at times, it's as gorgeous and fluid as any Disney movie, and the opening dream sequence could exist independently as a fantastic animated one-off. Where it comes up short, though, is the story. It's kind of pleasant and meandering, with incredibly low stakes and a contrived conflict featuring a villain we only really see for the last five minutes. And while Nemo, as a character, isn't annoying, he's not that captivating, either. He doesn't really have an arc, he doesn't learn anything (except "stay away from that dumbass clown"), and he doesn't have a whole lot of substance. Some of these problems in particular drove the Studio Ghibli people away from the project.
And the game? Well, it's also just fine. Going back to it for research, I was taken aback by how relentlessly cruel it can be at times, then remembered how I really never made it past the second level as a kid. (This era in particular saw a ton of games made too tough to combat the rental market.) The mechanics, though, definitely stand out for being ahead of their time: Nemo takes the whole "enemy abilities" idea from Mega Man and repurposes it for the sake of navigation puzzles where you're tasked with switching to various animal forms in order to find keys strewn about the levels. I would say someone should do a spiritual remake of Little Nemo that's much more friendly, but I guess every Kirby game since Kirby's Adventure has kinda done that.
(And in case you're wondering, Little Nemo: The Dream Master has about 2% in common with the movie it's based on. No big shock there.)
In the end, Capcom produced a (I'm guessing) successful game, and TMS survived in a way that was much more relevant to Americans than Little Nemo would ever be. To recoup the losses from Adventures in Slumberland, TMS took on overseas animation work for American cartoons, resulting in some of the finest TV animation ever produced. Without them, we wouldn't have the best-looking episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures (TMS also animated the direct-to-video movie), Batman: The Animated Series, and Animaniacs, amongst others--in fact, the guy who directed the TMS episodes of Animaniacs is now the director of the great Lupin III Part IV. It might be a little selfish, but I'm okay with Nemo flopping in retrospect if it meant getting years of great-looking cartoons I could actually watch.