On paper, the live-action directorial debut of Brenda Chapman (director of The Prince of Egypt and Pixar’s first woman director with Brave) looks like a recipe for success. The film has a stellar ensemble of big names, including Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Caine and Clarke Peters, and a group of talented young Black actors. However, despite the wealth of talent, Come Away is a misfire of great proportions that had the potential to be something great.
The film remixes the origin stories of two classic characters, Peter Pan and Alice Kingsleigh (Alice in Wonderland). Jolie and Oyelowo play Rose and Jack Littleton, the matriarch and patriarch of a family living in the countryside. They have three children, Peter (Jordan Nash), Alice (Keira Chansa) and David (Reece Yates). They spend their days passing the time by playing wildly imaginative games. If you haven’t already guessed, Come Away sets up Peter and Alice to become the iconic characters, but with a tragic backstory of how Alice ended up in Wonderland and how Peter became the boy who never grew up.
Each of the young leads has a distinct personality. Alice isn’t interested in being “lady-like,” as she’s being pressured to be by her aunt Eleanor (Anna Chancellor), she’s only interested in playing games. Peter doesn’t perform well in school and just wants to be a kid forever. But David, the oldest of the three, is excelling academically and has gotten an offer to attend a boarding school. This news divides him and his other siblings, as they will no longer be a trio. There’s also the fact that David already seems to be the apple of their parents’ eyes and the golden child. In an effort to calm Peter and to lighten the mood, David promises to play one last game with him. Things go tragically wrong as David trips on a branch and plunges into the ocean, dying.
David’s death has wide-ranging impacts on the family. The parents are devastated. Rose and Jack both turn to alcohol to cope with their loss. Peter and Alice try to move on as best as they can. Alice attempts to retreat further out of her imagination and grows closer to her aunt, distancing herself from her mother. Eleanor gives Alice a tiny bell called Tinker’s Bell, which has her own fairy inside of it. Part of Peter wants to step into David’s shoes and go to the boarding school, but at the same time, he is disinterested in doing anything that would propel his journey into being a man. He now spends his time with an imaginary group of friends who, though all young, are somehow concerned with the distribution of wealth. As the film moves along, the fairytale origins continue to come into play, with Captain Hook and Mad Hatter-inspired characters introduced. But none of it lands because the film is trying to go in too many directions at once.
One thing that works in Come Away’s favor is that it is aesthetically dazzling. Chapman opens a beautiful world that is worthy of these classic characters. But looks aren’t everything and this heavily flawed remix of material doesn’t hold up. Though this is a film likely to be marketed to children and families, the film is very dark at times. Having a child die a third of the way through the film may be a bit too much for younger audiences. Also, a character’s hand is cut off and there is a weirdly disturbing scene when one of the kids picks up Rose’s liquor “potion” bottle and takes it to the head. The colorful film loses all of its lusters as each of the characters begin to handle grief in different ways. While it is great that a film wants to explore how children and families handle grief, it is impossible to do so while juggling many other things at the same time.
It appears that the film also wants to say something about race, but doesn’t want to go there. The underlying tension is clear in Rose and Jack’s marriage, and Aunt Eleanor makes comments about Jack being lower class, but it’s also very clear that race has to be a factor. If it’s not a factor, then why couldn’t Rose be the girl from the wrong side of the tracks and Jack be from an affluent family? There is also problematic imagery and depictions of Native Americans in the film. Though the film is set in a dated time period, using depictions of bows and arrows and headdresses was a choice that should not have been made. Finally, Mbatha-Raw, who plays an older Alice, has such a short on-screen appearance that it makes one wonder why she’s even in this movie.
In a different world, Come Away may have very well worked as an animated film that would have toned down a lot of its darker elements. But as it stands now, unfortunately, Chapman’s prior works reign far more supreme.
Come Away premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2020. It is currently awaiting distribution.
Photo: Sundance Film Festival
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