If Brenda Chapman’s name is familiar to you, it’s probably also what will draw you to Come Away. A longtime animator on Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt, she was later hired to be Pixar’s first female director on 2012’s Brave. She then fell into controversy when Pixar unceremoniously removed her from the gig she had developed, giving the female-led movie to a male colleague. Come Away is Chapman’s live-action feature debut, and it’s as original a work as you’ll find, reimagining as siblings Peter Pan and Alice before she went to Wonderland. Despite the promise of a truly magical storybook endeavor based on two of the most iconic fairy tale characters in history, the film is too grim and lifeless to spark wonder in either kids or adults.
While big names Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo may attract curious audiences, the attention goes to Jordan Nash and Keira Chansa as Peter Pan and Alice. Their parents Rose (Jolie) and Jack (Oyelowo) married across races but also across social classes, making for a much harder life than Rose’s dour, wealthy sister Eleanor (Anna Chancellor) cares for them to have. But the children are happy, living in an idyllic home in the English countryside along with eldest brother David (Reece Yates), who really drives their adventurous spirits.
The opening minutes of Come Away are as imaginative and vivid as hoped for. Chapman’s keen eye brings to life their make-believe battles: twigs morph into swords read for combat, arrows fly, a flipped over rowboat becomes a vast pirate ship full of cantankerous scallywags. Not only that, but elements of their lives hint at their future storybook adventures: Alice’s tea parties attended by fluffy stuffed rabbits and a toad; a tiny bell given to her as a gift from Eleanor is known as a tinker’s bell and houses her very own personal fairy; Peter’s imaginary friends sprint the forests with reckless abandon, howling at the moon like a pack of Lost Boys.
Then tragedy strikes, and suddenly the family is fleeing from reality and hiding in fantasy worlds of their own making, some good, some decidedly not so. Come Away becomes bogged down in grief as each character seeks a welcome retreat. Jack turns to gambling, wasting away the family’s limited resources on an addiction previously conquered; Rose begins to drink, pulling away from her remaining children; Peter dreams of escape, of fleeing to a place where homework no longer matters and where he can be a kid forever; Alice seeks out a Wonderland where rabbits run around with pocket watches. The people in Alice’s life often shapeshift before her eyes, becoming familiar characters from Lewis Carroll’s novels.
The material is too dark and grim for children to grapple with, worsened by the long-feeling runtime. Chapman and screenwriter Marissa Kate Goodhill struggle to depict personal tragedy, a common thread in children’s novels, in a palatable way for the very audience Come Away aims for. At the same time, adults will find the material dull and lightweight, despite some vague interest in seeing how this whole Wendy/Peter saga wraps up in a way that connects to the stories we know.
Ultimately, Come Away does manage to get there in bookended sequences featuring a grown-up Alice (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but it’s a laborious process that only leaves us feeling sadder. Would it have been too much for a simple “happily ever after”?