Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland have been a source of entertainment for children since they were first written by J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll respectively. Hollywood is no different, in the last ten years alone we’ve seen reincarnations of these stories grace the screen, taking us to adventure in the faraway lands of Neverland and Wonderland. Come Away presents a mash-up of these tales, told through the Littleton family’s struggle to move forward after a great tragedy.
Coming from a home where imagination is encouraged, David (Reece Yates), Peter (Jordan A. Nash), and Alice (Keira Chansa) spend their days in the woods that surround their cottage in, what I would guesstimate as, the late 1800s or early 1900s. Swashbuckling pirates and shooting pretend arrows at one another turn every day into a fun day. Their parents Rose (Angelina Jolie) and Jack (David Oyelowo) are happy and inspiring to the children, and you can feel the overall warmth of the atmosphere being created by director Brenda Chapman.
Chapman, known notably for her Oscar winning direction on Disney’s Brave with co-director Mark Andrews, really creates a wonderful sandbox for the melding of the two children’s stories in Come Away. Throughout the film, sequences dip in and out of reality, creating the sense of the children’s imaginary delights and excitement for adventure. The characters created in the script by Marissa Kate Goodhill are well rounded and well edged, but I’ll get more into why at the end.
In a truly wonderful moment early on, the Littleton family sits down to family dinner with their Aunt Eleanor (Anna Chancellor). As young Alice starts asking questions, Eleanor reprimands Alice to only “speak when spoken to” and Alice works out why that is indeed a suppressing view. I enjoy films where children have the sense to speak their mind, and in Come Away it’s urged. The children still have rules to follow, they are of course children, but they’re heard in this house and not spoken to like obligations. During that same table conversation, the family discusses sending their eldest son David to a private school in the city and we get our first peek into the bond this family has even through differentiating stances.
Peter is one of the film’s most brilliantly presented characters, in a brief scene with his father Jack, Peter is made to tell his father about his poor school grades. The loving and encouraging souls that care for Peter are a wonderful revelation I wish we saw more of in movies, instead of the stern father figure. Jack recognizes Peter’s hardship in schoolwork and when Peter compares himself to David, Jack tells Peter, “there are things you can do that your brother can’t.” It struck me that the angle of this could be that there are learning challenges here for Peter, and in seeing Peter attempt to study suddenly surrounded by wonderfully creative animated carvings coming to life, it’s made more clear.
David and Peter seize their opportunity to play together in the limited time before David goes off to school, as they sneak off to a capsized boat they’ve found, a freak accident leaves David lifeless. The magnitude of the Littleton’s loss shakes the warmth out of the movie as each character begins dealing with death in their own way. The undertaking of many different personalities adapting to grief is bold, though Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland have both been allegorical to death, the scope feels much larger. As Alice and Peter watch the deterioration of their parents, we watch the pair’s imagination act as a coping mechanism—especially when these characters try to defy their own childish needs, opting for grown-up decision making by attempting to lighten the load for their burdened parents.
One sequence particularly struck me off guard where, during the aftermath of David’s death, Alice offers her Aunt Eleanor to an imaginary tea party. This hopeful child’s act of kindness seems to bring both a literal and metaphoric ray of hope back to a film, the film displaying warm tones in the early scenes drowned in grey bleakness especially inside of the home. Here those tones brighten up again offering hope to an inconsolable situation, a gift unique to the innocence of children. As the film continues, new characters from the books emerge and it can be a fun game for the viewer to identify who represents who. The Lost Boys, The Mad Hatter, Captain Hook, and more all have representations throughout the film; it’s interesting to see the children’s shifting views of idolizations and those with villainous intent.
Come Away is mainly a drama and parts of the story do deal largely in a more adult-themed reality, arguably more so than 2004’s Finding Neverland. Though rated PG and born from the children’s stories, the film is primarily about The Littleton family’s struggle following David’s death. As I spoke to the edges of the characters earlier, nobody in the film is perfect and moreover battle to work through their loss the way a true-to-life person would and not a Disney caricature. Through David’s passing, we watch remarkable character portraits develop, some of denial and grief, others through addiction and trauma. Understandably, some parents could find those themes a little heavy for their family, particularly those with younger viewers.
A lot of the heart in Come Away is found in its performances, the cast is absolutely stellar and the children are undeniably charming. The film’s magic lies in Alice and Peter’s enchanting fantasy worlds, specifically as the stress of their family relationships become overwrought. I did find that the transitioning between acts was maybe longer than necessary, but not long enough that I ever felt bored or despondent toward the film. The finale of the film holds some mystery, and it has caused me to pause and go back and forth on how I felt about it. Overall, I found Come Away to be a heartfelt family drama just in time for the holiday season that may be particularly meaningful to children dealing with mourning a loved one, especially in a year where many families are adjusting to that harrowing scenario.
Come Away is playing in theaters and VOD beginning November 13.