For some, the prospect of former Pixar director Brenda Chapman (“Brave”) making her live-action debut will make “Come Away” seem exciting. For others, it’s the film’s literary conceit that appeals: What if Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan had been siblings? And then there’s the casting of Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo as the parents, which suggests certain possibilities in terms of how the story might deal with certain seldom-examined social dynamics within its period setting — possibilities that internet trolls have targeted with racist comments.
Alas, “Come Away” squanders all of these opportunities on a ponderous family drama that even Netflix (where concept is everything and quality is often beside the point) wasn’t interested in acquiring when it premiered at Sundance back in January. At the festival, the film was overshadowed by “Wendy,” but even in the straight-to-streaming doldrums of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to muster much excitement for a movie as stiff and serious as this.
The story concerns a trio of children raised by forward-thinking parents Jack (Oyelowo) and Rose Littleton (Jolie), who encourage their kids’ creativity — unlike their snobbish aunt Eleanor (Anna Chancellor). Peter (Jordan A. Nash) discovers a miniature pirate ship by the creek in their backyard and fantasizes that he’s leader of a gang of “lost boys,” at war with Indians only he can see. Alice (Keira Chansa) hosts elaborate tea parties for her stuffed animals. It should be noted that this is an alternate origin story for both characters, and neither has yet embarked on the adventures for which they are beloved — a sure disappointment for anyone hoping to spend quality time in the alternate realms of either Neverland or Wonderland.
Before audiences can start to enjoy spending time with these two, their older brother, David (Reece Yates), dies in a freak accident. Of the three child actors, Yates seemed the most promising, but now we’re left with two kids whom Chapman is uncertain how to direct, focusing more on their diction than their performances. Nash and Chansa don’t seem to believe in their roles — ironic, considering how central imagination is to both J. M. Barrie’s and Lewis Carroll’s work. If young audiences can’t see themselves in these characters, the movie’s all but sure to be a slog.
And then there is Jolie, who goes from playing World’s Greatest Mom to a frail zombie, drinking her pain away in private. John Debney’s fairy-dust score (one of the film’s few strengths) grows very melancholy for a time, and Alice insists on believing that David isn’t really dead, but merely hiding. Dad has the toughest time of it, falling back into a self-destructive gambling habit (which has the slight bright spot of putting him in contact with an underworld character played by Michael Caine). If this sounds like an awful lot of exposition for a film in which the Peter-and-Alice-as-siblings idea should have done the trick, that’s sadly the case.
For nearly 80 of the film’s 94-minute running time, screenwriter Marissa Kate Goodhill is too busy establishing the dreary “real world” environment in which these two kids were raised, until audiences inevitably realize the film has no intention of taking us elsewhere. That appears to be a flaw of concept, rather than resources, as the independent production is lavish with its sets, especially the Victorian London locations, where the siblings meet a mad hatter (Clarke Peters) and have a run-in with the soon-to-be-handless Capt. James (David Gyasi). The visual effects prove considerably less impressive (“shoddy” would be a better word), but it’s not as if there’s some great need for them, since the fantasy sequences are few and far between.
Instead, the filmmakers have overthought how to seed an unnecessarily complicated series of “inspirations” for Alice and Peter’s later adventures, reverse-engineering mundane details to explain how the children came up with the ideas for Tinkerbell, the Red Queen, a crocodile, a broken clock and so forth. The payoff is meant to occur in audiences’ heads, as viewers make the connection between insider literary references and the stories that will follow (off screen), but it all feels like too much make-believe — two characters pretending to be Alice and Peter, rather than the real deal.
The script attempts a modest amount of social commentary, judging the kids’ judgmental aunt, who reprimands Alice: “It’s a disgusting habit of the lower class, and just because your father is from that class, it does not mean that you have to be too. We will make a lady of you yet.” But Chapman’s choice of casting Black actors might have afforded the chance to explore race relations in Victorian England, or even to address the lingering bigotry of today (reinforced by the “review bombing” on sites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes). Instead, she treats it as a nonissue — a win for representation, perhaps, though only nominally so, since it scrubs the characters of what their Black identity might mean.
If that seems like asking too much, then perhaps Chapman could have toned down some of the film’s other more adult-centric themes — Rose’s alcoholism, Jack’s gambling addiction, etc. Her approach is simultaneously far too heavy and not at all substantial, a long, slow buildup to something wondrous that never comes. Frankly, the movie feels like being trapped in a never-ending pitch meeting for itself: so many rough ideas in search of execution. In the end, “Come Away” posits that one of the siblings chose to run away and remain a child forever, while the other grew up to tell the tale, though the story we’re given leaves off too soon. What should have been a perfect excuse for escapism instead feels like a recipe for a lifetime of therapy, which is hardly what audiences want from these characters.