Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: April 8, 1911
Stars: Little Nemo, Flip, The Imp
Rating: ★★★★½

Little Nemo © Winsor McCay‘Little Nemo’ was master comic artist Winsor McCay’s first animation film. It’s also one of the first drawn animation films ever made.

Indeed, one of the title cards boldly states that Winsor McCay is “the first artist to attempt drawing pictures that will move.” This is obviously untrue: Stuart J. Blackton had made the first drawn animated film five years earlier, with ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces‘ (1906) and since then Frenchman Émile Cohl had produced more than a hundred animated films, of which a substantial part was (at least partially) drawn. Nevertheless, McCay seems to be the first artist to pick up the glove from Blackton and Cohl.

Star of McCay’s film is his world-famous comic hero Little Nemo, the little boy who always dreamed to be in Slumberland, only to awake abruptly at the end of each comic. He’s joined by Flip, the Imp, the princess and the doctor from the same comic. Nevertheless, they’re not the stars of the narrative, because that is their creator, Winsor McCay himself.

‘Little Nemo’ is a film with two clear sections:

the first half is filmed in live action and tells in three scenes about Winsor McCay’s plan to make moving drawings. In the first scene he proposes his idea to make 4,000 drawings in only one month. This only makes his friends laugh at him. In the second scene he orders three barrels of ink and two enormous packages of drawing paper, and in the third scene he can be seen in his drawing room, between huge piles of drawings and a primitive flipbook-like apparatus to preview his film. A young man, who has come to dust the place makes the piles of drawings fall.

In all, these scenes are rather slow and only mildly funny. Above all, they look as from an era long passed. But when the result is shown, one’s opinion changes completely…

The actual animation itself, completely hand-colored, is as startling and fresh as it was almost a hundred years ago. After an infectious “watch me move!” we watch Little Nemo, Flip and the imp move in 3D, Flip and the imp stretching like distorting mirror images (a gag that has his origin in the February 2, 1908 episode of the comic), Nemo drawing the princess himself, Nemo and the princess riding a dragon that disappears into the distance (inspired by three Sunday Pages from July/August 1906), and Flip and the imp crashing with a car, landing on the doctor.

The animated part may not make any sense, it certainly makes a great watch. McCay likely had seen some of Cohl’s films, because  ‘Little Nemo’ displays some of Cohl’s trademark metamorphosis techniques, especially when introducing characters: the imp is made out of falling building blocks, while several small lines finally come together to form Little Nemo. But McCay goes beyond Cohl in command of drawing: his mastery of form, perspective and movement is astonishing.

Although some of the movement is awkwardly slow (a feature the film shares with the comic strip), McCay displays a displays a tremendous control of form and material. For example, he’s the first animator to make his drawings move in perfect perspective, which he shows when Little Nemo and the princess ride off in the dragon’s mouth. After McCay no one would surpass this high quality of animation, until Walt Disney’s innovative strive to realism during the second half of the 1930s.

Watch ‘Little Nemo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Winsor McCay’s first film
To Winsor McCay’s second film: How a Mosquito Operates