Neil Gaiman fans are committed to supporting his work, but even they may have trouble with “Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously,” the limp new documentary by Patrick Meaney currently available on Vimeo on Demand. How a feature on one of our greatest living fantasy authors could be so mundane is a mystery. Whether it’s because Meaney lacks his subject’s sweeping imagination, or Gaiman’s introverted nature was simply too difficult to surmount, “Dream Dangerously” comes up short.
You couldn’t find a more fascinating pop culture figure to receive this treatment: Gaiman is a British novelist best known for the comic book series “The Sandman,” a groundbreaking fantasy comic about the world of dreams, which is generally believed to have ushered in the genre of contemporary dark fantasy. After his breakout years in the eighties, Gaiman successfully transitioned from comics to novels with hits like “Stardust,” “American Gods,” “Coraline,” “The Graveyard Book,” as well as many others. But this complicated trajectory, which has allowed Gaiman to remain a part of the fantasy scene even as he has crossed over to broader literary traditions, receives little screen time in “Dream Dangerously.”
Instead, the film accompanies Gaiman on his final book signing tour, which is about as fascinating as watching Gaiman sign books. The author is famously dedicated to his fans, never leaving an event without every book signed and every hand shaken. Gaiman graciously accepts hugs, gushing compliments, and even tears of joy into the wee hours. (The last tour put such a strain on his body that he lost a thumbnail.) This time, he comes prepared: At the end of each evening, one of his doting female assistants brings Gaiman an ice bucket, massaging his shoulder as he plunges his hand and elbow inside, breathing sighs of relief. That’s the biggest peak behind the curtain in the film’s 74-minute running time.
It’s especially dispiriting to see “Dream Dangerously” miss a big opportunity to profile Gaiman because it adds to the ongoing failures associated with films related to his career. Though the film adaptation of “Coraline” was a success for Disney, other treatments of Gaiman’s works have been stuck in limbo for some time. (Fingers crossed: John Cameron Mitchell shot his film based on Gaiman’s eponymous short story “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” in 2015, though no release date has been set.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt was developing “The Sandman” with Warner Brothers, before leaving the project, citing irreconcilable differences once New Line Cinema took over. His grand-sweeping novels may be a better fit for television; Starz is adapting “American Gods,” set to debut sometime in 2017.
While it would’ve been nice to see some of those projects come to fruition, “Dream Dangerously” could have benefitted from some more creative development. Gaiman’s eccentric fans — including a few recognizable faces — provide some short-lived comic relief to the monotony of the book tour subject matter. “The best people to have sex with are the ones who know about Neil Gaiman,” says “Criminal Minds” actress Kirsten Vangsness, which is itself the kind of statement that could sustain a whole movie. Had Meaney delved further into the fan culture surrounding Gaiman, he may have found a wealth of interesting stories to tell. “People who met at signing events fell in love, got married, had babies,” says another fan. But all we see in “Dream Dangerously” is their hysteria.
Diehard Gaiman fans—and they are many—might enjoy even the truncated backstory of his childhood growing up in Portsmouth, England. The town dedicates a plaque to him, (“This feels pretty good, actually”), and an old friend of his father’s turns up with a little anecdote. Gaiman’s childhood friend, the science writer Geoff Notkin, shares some fun memories about a teacher who told them that if they didn’t stop drawing cartoons they would never amount to anything.
Gaiman has given many a graduation speech, and remnants of those inspirational nuggets are interspersed throughout the film. His advice to young writers: “Will you cock up at the beginning? Almost definitely. Is it okay to cock up? Absolutely.” And the film does manage to offer the tiniest of glimpses inside his creative process: he writes in long hand and has been known to step into a corner at a party with a notebook. Bill Hader appears for a few talking head bits to share some nice anecdotes — like the time Gaiman told him that he likes to take a canoe out into the middle of a pond to read. Gaiman constantly pushes himself: “In my head, I’m always trying to do something completely different the next time,” he says, and the outcome speaks for itself.
While Gaiman had an impact on each one of the many celebrities who cameo, it seems that they were unable to articulate what they love about Gaiman in very meaningful ways, or Meaney (who also edited the film) was unable to string their thoughts together to say anything original. While the talking head approach is a tired one, documentaries can certainly get a pass on boring visuals if those heads have something interesting to say. That’s sadly not the case here. The porn star Stoya appears once in the beginning. Gaiman’s wife, the musician Amanda Palmer, inexplicably appears very briefly and arrives very late in the film. Their relationship could fill a whole other movie, and probably should, but it’s an afterthought in this one.
“Dream Dangerously” opens with Gaiman at a live event, standing at a podium, musing on his legacy. “I want to be remembered as somebody who told good stories,” he says. Gaiman can rest easy; this film won’t tarnish his reputation as a storyteller. But the documentary could have benefited from a few of his tips.