'Come Away': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Surprisingly dour for a kids' movie invoking two storybook icons.

David Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie play the parents of Peter Pan and Wonderland's Alice in the first live-action feature by 'Brave' director Brenda Chapman.

An airless film about childhood fantasies that comes to life only fitfully, Brenda Chapman's Come Away is aimed at children but so pickled in grown-up grief that few kids are likely to connect with it. Making her live-action debut after directing the 2012 Pixar hit Brave, Chapman finds some charming ways to visualize her young heroes' imaginings, but is less successful at connecting with the characters as flesh-and-blood children. A wealth of familiar storybook material and a cast including Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo will draw attention, but a handsome production and beautiful cast aren't enough to get this fantasy off the ground.

The film's conceit is that Peter Pan (Jordan Nash) and the Alice who explored Wonderland (Keira Chansa) were brother and sister, who once lived an idyllic life in the English countryside with their brother David (Reece Yates) and parents Rose and Jack Littleton (Jolie and Oyelowo). The siblings frolic constantly in the woods, and Chapman's camera sees the elements of their make-believe (bows and arrows, pirate ships) as vividly as they do. Indoors, the scene is so gentle and loving it seems encased in amber, except for those occasions when Rose's sour sister Eleanor (Anna Chancellor) comes around, full of opinions about how girls like Alice should properly be raised.

From the start, Chapman and screenwriter Marissa Kate Goodhill fill the frame with objects that allude to the worlds Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie created. Stuffed white rabbits and looking glasses, pocket watches and lifelike shadows fill the Littletons' world, and on occasion the film makes a big deal about it: A very pleased-with-herself Rose sits Alice down to give her a tiny bell she had a tinker make, and when the child isn't impressed, she spins a tale about how it's the earthly form of Alice's very own personal fairy. It's one of the sweeter moments in a film that sometimes, as with recurring talk of the "dream dust" that grants access to the fantasy world, lays things on a little thick.

Then, as Peter and David are off near a lake fighting imaginary swordsmen, the sky darkens and thunder rumbles. We don't need an additional shot of hundreds of black birds taking flight to know something horrible is about to happen, but we get it. Suddenly David is dead, and the Littleton home will never be cheerful again.

Loss is a staple of children's tales, of course. But Come Away spends most of its long-feeling running time exploring the shadow of this event. Rose begins to drink, goes maybe slightly mad, is distant with her surviving children; Jack returns to a London underworld he had given up for Rose, attracting the attention of villainous creditors. Aunt Eleanor plants seeds of snobbery in Alice. And poor Peter, feeling responsible for his brother's death, imagines that his life is elsewhere, off with some band of Lost Boys. When he hatches a plan to get their dad out of debt, it's so wrong-headed there's no way to enjoy its fantasy elements. (Though an encounter with a top-hat wearing oddball played by Clarke Peters contains more mystery in its brief minutes than most of the rest of the film.)

A framing device finds a grown-up Alice (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) recounting parts of this story to her own children — Wendy, Michael and John — and the film does intend to tie itself up nicely into the stories as we know them. But that presents hard emotional work for the viewer: How are we to connect the dots between this birth of Peter Pan and the wonders he'll later show to Wendy and her brothers, without just feeling sad for the boy who never grew up, and for a family that lost not one but two sons in that fateful lightning storm?

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Kids)
Production company: Fred Films
Cast: Jordan Nash, Keira Chansa, Reece Yates, David Oyelowo, Angelina Jolie, Anna Chancellor, Michael Caine, Clarke Peters, David Gyasi, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Director: Brenda Chapman
Screenwriter: Marissa Kate Goodhill
Producers: Leesa Kahn, James Spring, David Oyelowo, Steve Richards, Andrea Keir
Director of photography: Jules O'Loughlin
Production designer: Luciana Arrighi
Costume designer: Louise Stjernsward
Editor: Dody Dorn
Composer: John Debney
Casting directors: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton, Lillie Jeffrey

94 minutes