Little Nemo was the best-known creation of American cartoonist, Winsor Zenic McCay (1869-1934). In addition, though, McCay was also a pioneer in animated films. He wasn't the very first, coming after the likes of Georges Melies, J. Stuart Blackton and Emile Cohl, but he significantly advanced the art form and this film contains his first animation.
First, a bit of background. Little Nemo was a series of weekly comic strips that ran from 1905-1914 and then came back a decade later in 1924-1927. You can buy a collection of the pre-war run, for which the copyright's expired. Anyway, comic strips at the time were often slapstick (e.g. Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, Buster Brown, Krazy Kat), but Little Nemo was about its title character's dreams. Every episode ended with him waking up. Before that, though, surreal things would happen, beautifully drawn in McCay's intricate but elegant style. Famous episodes include the Night of the Living Houses (with Nemo and a friend being chased down a street by houses on legs), the Walking Bed (in which Nemo's bed grows enormous legs and starts climbing the rooftops) and Befuddle Hall.
Alan Moore has paid homage to him in Miracleman and Promethea. Neil Gaiman did the same in Sandman and there are other examples too, e.g. Maurice Sendak, Brian Bolland and William Joyce. Little Nemo got a Japanese anime film and spin-off platform game in 1989. I wouldn't call him famous, but he's influential.
This is his first appearance, drawn by and starring his creator. What's more, cell animation wasn't invented until 1915 (by Earl Hurd and John Bray) and so every picture here was drawn by hand, including the backgrounds. McCay did them all personally. The animation is only a two-minute segment at the end of the film, but it still took McCoy four years to do the 4000 drawings, including colouring all the 35mm frames by hand. Yes, that's right. That final animated segment is in colour. In a 1905 silent film. My jaw hit the floor.
Most of the film is live-action. We see McCay and five of his artist friends in a club, all laughing at McCay's silly plan to make an animated film. Nevertheless McCoy believes in his vision, so he goes off and does it. We see him draw his pictures in what's surely time-lapse photography, unless he was a terrifyingly quick artist, and I became sceptical about whether I was ever going to see any animation. He's really good, though. He draw a lovely line, although it's regrettable that he starts by drawing The Imp (a racist-looking caricature of a character who in the original strips is a boy from a cannibal tribe). The Imp doesn't eat anyone, though. We'll also see him draw Flip, The Princess and Little Nemo himself. There's no attempt to explain who these characters are, but that doesn't matter.
McCay in the film bets that he'll be able to draw his 4,000 pictures in a month. That's pretty quick, but I suppose the four years it really took him also involved earning a living, etc.
What happens next is kind of amazing. He goes off to his studio and orders paper and ink, which come in massive slabs and barrels marked "DRAWING PAPER" and "INK", as if they'd come from Acme in a Warner Bros cartoon. It's a movie about the making of itself. McCay wants us to know that it takes a REALLY LONG TIME to draw all these pictures, which is fair enough. No one had ever done what he was doing, after all.
Then, at the end, comes the bit we've been waiting for. McCay shows us a picture of Flip... which turns into colour and starts moving! It's amazing. Watching this old silent film with intertitles, you'll have been lulled back to 1905 and so the animation will surprise you almost as if you'd lived in 1905 too. The nearest I can find to a weak point technically comes right at the beginning, as Flip turns his head. After that, though, it's all great. The quality of the drawing is excellent and the cast are all distinctive and fun to look at. There's no story, mind you. They just do weird stuff. They dance, they stretch as if they're trapped in a fairground mirror and they ride away on a Chinese dragon. It's a dream-state before our eyes, with characters arriving like segmented slices of cheese or even being drawn into existence by each other.
There's no attempt to give any of these people characterisation, mind you, except through their appearances. They're just cool to look at, both in themselves and in what they're doing. McCay created the first cartoon character with a personality almost ten years later, in Gertie the Dinosaur (1914).
I'd recommend it. It's historically important, but it's also cool in its own right. The live-action scenes are fun, then the Little Nemo animated sequences are funky. Well worth a look.