If You Loved ‘Inception’: Movies for Vivid Dreamers
And a deep dive into the Inception of Little Nemo.
Before the 2010 release of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the power of dreams had been relatively slept on by cinema.
“You musn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” —Eames
Inception treated its audience like Dominic Cobb treated his targets, creating a world so intricate that it felt real.
The PASIV device, which enabled shared dreams in the film, was detailed in an instruction manual. And the concepts of inception and dream extraction seemed more science than fiction; scientists have already begun inducing knowledge and communicating with lucid dreamers in their sleep.
But Inception was also an act of recognition, grounding its dream worlds in the same strange and persistent logic that vivid dreamers know from their own encounters with the subconscious. If 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the blossom of this acknowledgment, Inception was the full bloom.
When recommending what they claim to be similar movies, reviewers have called Inception a “heist film,” leaving us to watch movies about bank robberies.
Others interpret Inception to be about anything but the nature of dreams, or the implications of the details.
Perhaps all of this is to say that Inception is truly a peerless film. Where else is the terrifying descent into the subconscious underscored by a soundtrack like Hans Zimmer’s?
Yet, there’s at least one other movie that every Inception fan should know. It is the story of a lie planted in the dreams of a young boy, and how that lie became real: the inception before Inception.
Recommendation: Little Nemo Adventures in Slumberland (1992)
With Netflix’s new rendition of Little Nemo in production, entitled “Slumberland”, it’s a good time to revisit the original film.
Why it’s like Inception:
Little Nemo Adventures in Slumberland frightened children with uncompromising depictions of its protagonist’s nightmares. The gothic landscape of Nemo’s initial dream resembles Cobb’s limbo, until a team of highly skilled dream manipulators usher Nemo into a flowery world of Sherman Brothers’ songs and perpetual festivities.
Nemo’s multi-layered dreams see him kicked up from one level to another, briefly grasping onto what he thought was reality. The modified physics of Inception only feel like a cameo here, but Little Nemo’s sprawling architecture and stunning visuals channel the sheer power of the subconscious in the same way that Inception does.
Despite its big budget production (about $75 million, with inflation, to Inception’s $160 million) Little Nemo was a box office flop. The film flourished aesthetically, but withered in its plot.
Little Nemo had introduced a wealth of interesting locations and characters, but never indulged the audience by expanding on any of it. The film expeditiously carried viewers from point A to point B, much like Nemo’s bed quietly carried him to destinations of its own interest.
However, if we focus on the film’s minute details, we can see that its expeditious nature makes sense. This isn’t a film about Nemo, or the worlds he travels through. This is a film about the lengths that dream infiltrators go to when Nemo’s pie sneaking habit interferes with their protection of good dreams.
The Deep Dive
This is my personal analysis of the movie, so all opinions here are my own, and not necessarily those of the filmmakers. Spoilers will be included.
The primary rule that will help us understand the true nature of Little Nemo is that Icarus isn’t real.
1. Icarus isn’t real.
Little Nemo’s opening sequence is the only time that Nemo doesn’t fall asleep or wake up with Icarus. We can assume that Nemo’s waking reality is not anthropomorphic in the context of Icarus’ fluent knowledge of English, or his affinity for aviator goggles.
Looking back to the 1984 pilot film, Icarus is portrayed distinctly as a figment of Nemo’s imagination. When Nemo falls asleep standing up, Icarus then appears as a boy that calls to Nemo in a spectral voice.
In Inception’s ending, the presence of Professor Miles is taken to mean that Cobb isn’t dreaming. Likewise, the presence of Icarus means that Nemo is dreaming. He spends the majority of the movie asleep, never waking up by the end. And, we never see his real parents.
However, when Nemo is first taken to the toy version of his house (explained shortly) he falls back asleep without Icarus, even though he is dreaming at this point.
2. Nemo’s Toy House
In Nemo’s first dream, he falls through a surface of water in Cobb’s limbo the ruins of a city, and emerges in a tunnel, where a train begins pursuing him.
The train is being driven by King Morpheus. In fact, Nemo has become a denizen of Morphie’s miniature city and train set. Nemo is herded by the train towards another version of his house. This house is a tiny replica of his real house, kept in his subconscious, exactly like Cobb kept a replica of Mal’s house in limbo.
Icarus lives in the tree by the toy house. And, coincidentally, King Morpheus has planted an idea within the toy house, exactly like Cobb planted an idea for Mal in her toy house.
Later, when Nemo and Icarus are invited aboard the royal dirigible, what is the first observation that Nemo makes?
3. Nemo never promised to stop stealing pies.
As Nemo continues to dream, unaware that he is living in the toy house, he slips down to the kitchen for a pie. The cupboard has a note on it, which reads, “Remember your promise!”
If you watch Nemo’s reaction to the letter, it is apparent that he doesn’t understand what it means. He honestly believes it must be for someone else. However, it is the beginning of an idea that King Morpheus intends to incept into Nemo’s beliefs.
King Morpheus later foists the inheritance of his kingdom on Nemo, including the key to Nightmareland, and insists that Nemo promise to never use it on that door. Morphie, however, knows that Nemo will unlock the door. It’s a crucial part of the inception.
After Flip convinces Nemo to unlock the door, and exposes his failure, Nemo is surrounded by an angry mob and kicked up to the dream level of the toy house.
Because he had made a real promise to King Morpheus, he is then led to associate the real promise—never to unlock the door to Nightmareland—with the fake promise—never to steal pies again.
4. King Morpheus can’t control the nightmarish effects of eating pie before bed.
In his royal invitation to Nemo, King Morpheus refers to himself as “the divine protector of everyone’s good dream”.
Going all the way back to the 1978 pilot film, we can see that King Morpheus and Princess Camille are autonomous entities, rather than inventions of Nemo’s imagination.
After Nemo’s initial dream sequence, he falls out of bed, and a voice that sounds like his mother’s says, “Nemo? Have you been sneaking pies again?”
King Morpheus knows that Nemo’s pie habit is ruining the good dreams that he is sworn to protect. Because he can’t directly avert the physical effects of the pies, King Morpheus has no other option than to persuade Nemo away from pies altogether—through inception.
5. Flip is to Dominic Cobb what Nemo is to Robert Fischer.
Inception’s Robert Fischer is the heir to his father’s business empire, while Nemo becomes the heir to the kingdom of Slumberland. While these can’t be direct parallels, the similarities add to the understanding of Little Nemo as a story of inception.
6. Who, or what, are Nemo’s parents in his dreams?
After Nemo fails his attempt at pie thievery in the toy house, the voice of his father says that he’ll talk to Nemo in the morning.
Nemo’s father never does have a conversation with him about his pie addiction. Instead, at the end of the movie, his father’s demeanor has changed dramatically, and he announces they’ll be going to the circus.
It was as if Nemo’s parents had been replaced by shapeshifters.
The particular thing about the boomps is that they’re always in Nemo’s toy house when he gets kicked back into it. It’s possible that they were always in the house with him.
The boomps may actually be amorphous in their natural state. When they meet Nemo in Nightmareland, they have chosen to take familiar shapes—the shapes of Nemo and his friends. This is not only a good survival tactic, but a demonstration of their capability to mimic other lifeforms—lifeforms like Nemo’s parents. Could they be like the Forgers of Inception?
7. What happens when Nemo dies?
It’s easy to forget that Nemo dies in this movie. That’s probably because it isn’t made out to be very consequential.
King Morpheus, and later, Icarus, warn Nemo that he isn’t old enough, or strong enough, to use the royal scepter and survive.
His willingness to die in repentance for breaking his promise is the morbid test that guarantees the effectiveness of the inception.
It relates more closely to another of Christopher Nolan’s films, Tenet, where the protagonist—known as The Protagonist—faces a similar test by a secret organization. In Tenet, they aren’t seeking his repentance, but are interested in his dedication to their cause. Nemo and the Protagonist are both revived after their seeming death.
Looking at Nemo through the lens of Tenet, he had also been recruited by a secret organization. The question is whether Nemo’s inheritance of Slumberland was a ruse for the purpose of inception, or if King Morpheus truly intended for Nemo to stay.
Through the lens of Inception, if it were possible for King Morpheus to keep a copy of Nemo in his subconscious—or his miniature set—like Cobb kept a copy of Mal, then it would suggest that Nemo may have died in reality. This, in turn, could explain why Nemo never really woke up at the end of the movie.
Or was this an M. Night Shyamalan moment, where Nemo was dead the whole time?
Thank you for reading, and until next time, be careful with your bedtime snacks!