The fact is that without the Ghibli connection, I would never even have heard of this rather minor Japanese-American production, intended to be a great landmark in the history of anime, but in fact one of its great disappointments.
There was so much potential here. The source material is great, a whimsical early 20th-century comic strip about a boy who goes off on various adventures when he falls asleep, usually waking up having fallen out of his bed to the sound of his parents telling him he shouldn’t have eaten various things late at night (raw onions with ice cream, for example). It’s a bizarre and beautiful little strip, startlingly modern (especially the way Flip talks to people) and hallucinogenic, with much in common with Alice in Wonderland.
The animated adaptation brought together some phenomenal talent. The big-hitters of Ghibli were involved in pre-production, Takahata and Miyazaki leaving because they wanted to tell a different story than the one that seemed to be developing. Yoshifumi Kondo, who directed Mimi-o Sumaseba, possibly my favourite of Ghibli’s movies, stayed long enough to helm a charming little test film with a very Ghibli secondary character and some stunning flight scenes. Renown Ashita no Joe/Rose of Versailles director Dezaki Osamu made a pilot that really does meld Japanese and Western animation styles in a very interesting way. Ultimately, animation was done by TMS, who produced Akira, Jarinko Chie and now do things like D.Gray-Man, which lends credence to the claim that Nemo should be classified as anime, except that they also worked on cartoons such as Inspector Gadget, Ghostbusters and Futurama.
The fact is that this could have been a superb film, but it became sanitised. It has the fingerprints of American boardrooms all over it. Yes, they got Ray Bradbury in at the beginning, but it was Chris Columbus who got screenplay credits. By the time Dezaki was doing his pilot, there was a comedy animal sidekick. Flip, who was superb in the comic because he was a sardonic, cynical wisecracker who does things like antagonise pirates to the point of execution before letting slip that his parents are powerful enough to vaporise them in an instant, becomes a jolly, grinning Mickey Rooney who may have a dark edge but is far too fun-loving.
Everything just became too safe. The story is simplistic and the animation never bravura. The characters are a bit irritating (though I did warm to the princess after her right straight punch!) and the music is bland. There’s nothing unsettling here, and it’s all sickly and wholesome and has comic relief and cute sidekick characters so dull that it would be much better without them. It’s also a bit overlong.
The designs could have been a bit less goofy. Nemo looks great in his coronation outfit but his face is far too inconsistent and too often off-model. The princess is bland and let’s face it, when she starts flirting with a child she’s just met it’s plain weird, and Flip’s characterisation grates, down to his physicality. Let’s not forget annoying ‘jester’ goblins and squirrels. The designs and colouring is just too simple for a late-80s animation. That said, I’d love to see a Bon Bon cosplayer – one of the designs that made it most intact from the original, even if I don’t think she had a name or any individuality in the strip.
I’m perhaps being a little harsh on the film. It has charming moments, cuteness that works, a functional story and a good pace. Some of the setpieces are amazing. It plays a bit with levels of reality in an effective way and the opening sometimes harks back to the test film in a good way. The acting is by and large very good, though the squirrel and the crow should’ve gone. Disappointing, but not disastrous.
(Originally written 8.8.08)