A movie about dreams becomes the stuff of nightmares in Netflix’s utterly misguided “Slumberland,” an attempt to build a sprawling fantasy adventure from the bones of the early-20th-century newspaper comic strip. Most notable as a vehicle for Jason Momoa, this wannabe spectacle from “The Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence serves up lots of special effects desperately in search of a story.
The plot begins with a familiar kid-movie setup: A young girl named Nemo (Marlow Barkley, in a gender swap from the comic) living in a lighthouse away from the world with her caring father (Kyle Chandler). When dad is lost at sea, she’s sent to live with her buttoned-up uncle (Chris O’Dowd) in the big city, finding an escape in her dreams.
The realm of dreams is described as “a world with no consequence,” but as constructed, that comes in a movie with no clear creative compass, proving more mystifying than magical. Alternately zany and sappy, the former impulse is embodied by Momoa’s Flip, who resides in the dream world and, with his horns and hat, resembles an unholy cross of the Mad Hatter, the Ghost of Christmas Present and a refugee from the island of Dr. Moreau.
Nemo and Flip go on a series of adventures in pursuit of a precious artifact, with the promise that by journeying through the dreams of others, she’ll somehow be able to see her father again. Along the way, they run afoul of something called the Bureau of Subconscious Activities, a surreal bureaucracy that sees Flip as an outlaw.
Netflix has already made a big bet on dreams with “The Sandman,” but the general conceit here broadly brings to mind the classic film “Time Bandits,” although any comparison mostly just reflects how hard that combination of whimsy and irreverence is to master, and how conspicuously “Slumberland” falls short of it.
Perhaps foremost, it’s difficult to determine for whom “Slumberland” is intended, other than Momoa fans and a younger audience numbed enough by videogames, perhaps, to be dazzled by the inventive production design and untroubled by the thinness of the story.
Streaming services are obviously dazzled by the marketing value of star power, and Momoa – who appeared opposite another young girl the dreary “Sweet Girl” last year, as well as the earlier series “Frontier” – as always provides a muscular dose of it. Those attributes feel wasted, however, in the surreal confines of “Slumberland,” which, as amusement-park-type names go, doesn’t even qualify as a nice place to visit.
“Slumberland” premieres November 18 on Netflix.