#489) Little Nemo (1911)

#489) Little Nemo (1911)

OR “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”

Directed & Written by Winsor McCay. Based on his comic strip.

Class of 2011 

The Plot: “The Famous Cartoonist” Winsor McCay makes a bet with his colleagues (George McManus, John Bunny, and Eugene V. Brewster) that he can make his comic strip “Little Nemo” come to life. One month and 4000 drawings later, McCay wins the bet with some very impressive early animation. All your favorites are here: Nemo….um….the Mickey Rooney one…and…a native? That can’t be right.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “fluidity, graphics, and story-telling” and cites McCay as an influence on “many generations of future animators”. There’s also an informative essay by film historian/NFR author Daniel Eagan.

But Does It Really?: This is definitely a “stepping stone” movie for the NFR. “Little Nemo” is the evolutionary step needed to get Winsor McCay to “Gertie the Dinosaur“, but is also an impressive undertaking in its own right. The live-action segment goes on for too long, but the revolutionary animation is worth the wait. It took 19 rounds for “Nemo” to make the NFR list, and that feels right: Justified, but hardly a film essential.

Wow, That’s Dated: McCay was no stranger to the ethnic stereotypes of the day, and “Little Nemo” features Impie, a generic African native, complete with some variation on blackface.

Other notes 

  • I will admit I’m not too familiar with the original “Little Nemo in Slumberland” comics. In each strip, Nemo would venture into Slumberland in his sleep, having adventures with clown-like trickster Flip and the aforementioned Impie. Real-life rules did not apply in Slumberland, as characters would squash and stretch, change sizes, and even acknowledge that they were in a comic strip! The whole thing looks really trippy; I see why it’s still revered by animators and graphic artists over 100 years later.
  • The “Little Nemo” comic strip premiered in the “New York Herald” in 1905, and was an immediate hit. In the six years before this film, “Nemo” had been adapted for the stage a few times (including a Broadway musical), and Winsor McCay had found success doing live drawings of the characters on the vaudeville circuit. Inspired by his son’s flipbooks, McCay made an animated short featuring his “Nemo” characters to spice up his vaudeville act. While not the first animation in American film (hello James Stuart Blackton), “Nemo” was the first to advance the medium with fluid character movement.
  • The “Little Nemo” film has a nearly identical live-action opening to “Gertie”. In both films McCay bets fellow cartoonist George McManus that he can make his cartoon come to life via animation. This means that McManus takes McCay up on the exact same bet twice. Either McManus is incredibly stupid or he has a serious gambling addiction.
  • If the larger man in the live-action wraparound looks familiar, you are as obsessed with early silent films as I am. He’s John Bunny, Vitagraph’s biggest star at the time, represented elsewhere on the list with “A Cure for Pokeritis“.
  • Also dated: several instances of McCay going back to his inkwell to replenish his pen while drawing.
  • Oh my god, the live-action prelude goes on forever. I know McCay is animating this whole thing by himself, but get on with it!
  • Once we get to the animation, the film’s NFR designation makes itself known. First of all, it’s in color; definitely wasn’t expecting that. The animation has a lovely, dreamlike quality (befitting the dreamlike style of the original comic). There are a few rough spots, but overall the animation is quite the marvel by 1911 standards.
  • The strip’s unnamed Princess arrives at the end, and she and Nemo ride off on a…dragon whose mouth doubles as a carriage? Apparently that was in the comics too?

Legacy 

  • McCay would spend the next decade creating other trailblazing pieces of animation, including future NFR entires “Gertie the Dinosaur” and “The Sinking of the Lusitania“.
  • “Little Nemo in Slumberland” survived a move from the “New York Herald” to the “New York American” (owned by William Randolph Hearst), and eventually a later move back to the “Herald”, where it stayed until the strip’s end in 1927. Unfortunately most of the original McCay artwork was destroyed in a fire, and a large portion of the surviving art has been poorly preserved.
  • “Nemo” has never truly gone away, with a century’s worth of influence on countless illustrators and animators (Walt Disney, Maurice Sendak, and Alan Moore to name just a few).
  • There have also been several adaptations of “Little Nemo” through the years, including an animated feature film in 1992 that definitely scared the crap out of me. And it looks like Netflix has announced a gender-swapped version centered around “Little Nema”. Whatever, Netflix; you just keep throwing money at IP and see what sticks.

Further Viewing: When is James Stuart Blackton making this list? If we’re going to have early animation on the NFR, why not start at the beginning?

3 thoughts on “#489) Little Nemo (1911)”

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