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Come Away takes Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan on a grim escapist journey

Brave and Prince of Egypt director Brenda Chapman makes her solo live-action debut

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Editor’s note: This review was previously published in conjunction with the movie’s premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated to reflect the movie’s premiere in theatrical release. Check local and federal guidelines for current safety information about seeing movies in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Logline: Before Alice went to Wonderland and Peter Pan ruled Neverland, they were siblings in a family full of love, dark secrets, and loss.

Longerline: Director Brenda Chapman has been working behind the scenes on animated series and features for decades, and after co-directing DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, she made headlines when she became Pixar’s first woman director, on 2012’s Brave. Then she made headlines again when Pixar pushed her off the project and handed it to one of her collaborators, a move that looked particularly questionable in light of the later revelations about the open culture of sexism, sexual harassment, and systematic denigration of women’s voices at Pixar.

Chapman has subsequently said that she’s learned not to sell her original ideas to studios, but that she’s willing to work as a director for hire. That’s how she wound up on Come Away, which came to her as a completed script by Marissa Kate Goodhill. It’s her first solo-credited directorial project, and her first live-action film, but it’s just as caught up in the mixture of fairy-tale wonder and grim adult responsibility that characterized Brave and The Prince of Egypt. It’s also angered bigots, who coordinated a review-bomb assault on the film, apparently because of the re-imagining of classic characters as mixed-race children. (Chapman has spoken up about the attack, and how disappointing it is to see destructive racists dominating the conversation.)

Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo star as Rose and Jack, a British couple who married across class lines, and now live in a picture-book country home outside of London in some undefined but Victorian-esque era. Their three children, David (Reece Yates), Peter (Jordan A. Nash), and Alice (Keira Chansa) are joyous kids with active imaginations, which turn the world around them into a Technicolor CGI adventure, full of pirates and treasure for the taking.

Then tragedy strikes the family, and everyone retreats from reality in different ways. But Peter and Alice retreat furthest, into visions that show where they’re eventually headed: Alice into a magical world full of watch-clutching rabbits and angry queens, and Peter into a different magical world where he can avoid adult grief and responsibility forever.

The quote that says it all: “It’s not time to grow up, Alice. It never is. You’ll see!’”

David Oyelowo is surrounded by delighted children in Brenda Chapman’s film Come Away. Photo: Relativity

What’s it trying to do? In many ways, Come Away could pass for a Terry Gilliam movie. Like Gilliam’s films, it’s scattered and anarchic, sometimes sentimental and sometimes strikingly grim, with loopy, ambitious ideas that don’t entirely balance out the pacing and tonal irregularities. But above all, it’s steeped in Gilliam’s obsession with fantasy as a means of escape from the worst parts of the world. Like other stories that draw on the Peter Pan mythos (Hook particularly comes to mind), Come Away focuses on the emotional difficulties and responsibilities of adulthood, and on the ways children are free to ignore all these things and live in a world they can define themselves. It’s the definition of an escapist fantasy: a story about how much better magic and childhood are than grown-up reality.

Does it get there? It’s certainly an odd message for a film, given that it ultimately seems to conclude (as Gilliam repeatedly has) that fantasy utterly trumps reality, and that there’s no downside to refusing to grow up. And the fantasy Come Away is selling often feels overripe and forced. Oyelowo gives a tense, complex performance, but Jolie feels like she’s still playing Maleficent, with a lot less camp and facial prosthetics. And the kids’ performances are broad, brash, and artificial, in a way that sometimes keeps the audience at a distance.

Some of the best executed parts of Come Away lie in that grown-up reality the film is criticizing, and the nuance it brings to an otherwise treacly fantasy. The adults in Come Away are all preoccupied with complicated relationships: Jack’s history as a gambling addict has left him with debts to mysterious, shadowy underworld figure James (David Gyasi), while Rose’s sister Eleanor (Anna Chancellor) clearly judges Rose for marrying a mere craftsman, and keeps sniping at how their children aren’t having a proper upbringing. Even these stories have deeper layers: Eleanor interferes with the family enough to earn herself minor villain status, but her grief over being childless herself, and her longing to express a maternal side, are clear enough to earn her sympathy, too. James is more clearly a villain, but his connection to Jack implies an entire movie’s worth of backstory filled with frustration and longing of his own.

The fantasy-vs.-reality plot could have used a similar level of nuance. The fantasy segments are often playful: Chapman illustrates the kids’ perspective with charming special effects that turn their dueling sticks into swords mid-swing, or make a battered old rowboat into a miniature pirate galleon. But it’s notable how the ending layers on the escapism without touching on the significant real-world consequences, and without really addressing whether Alice and Peter are finding Wonderland and Neverland, creating them, or somewhere in between.

What does that get us? A whole lot of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland spot-the-reference games. Chapman opens and closes Come Away with sequences where adult Alice (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) reads Yeats’ “The Stolen Child” to her own children, and between those bookends, even more literary allusions abound. Come Away fills Peter and Alice’s world with clear origin points for everything from the crocodile that eats Captain Hook’s hand to the Red Queen’s “Off with their heads!” catchphrase. There are so many blatant viewer-nudges that they start to feel more like farce than reference. By the time Peter and Alice encounter a goofy haberdasher (played by The Wire’s Clarke Peters), spouting the Mad Hatter’s riddles and familiar lines, it’s hard not to step outside the movie and wonder what’s actually real in this story, and whether the film’s outsized attempts at whimsy and wonder can survive the fuzzy execution.

But if nothing else, the production design and cinematography are striking. Chapman’s color palette is rich and vibrant, and John Debney’s tinkly, transportive music-box score punctuates the sense that the whole movie is taking place inside a nursery well-stocked with terrific toys. Audiences may resist the moral of this movie, but they’re likely to get caught up in the execution.

The most meme-able moment: At one point in the movie, Rose is so distraught over recent events that she turns to alcohol for relief. When Alice catches Rose tying one on, she decides her mother’s special drink is a magic potion, maybe because it’s stored in a fancy crystal decanter. When Alice has her own emotional crisis, she steals the decanter and says, “Magic potion, please take me away from here!” before knocking back the booze. It’s a “Same, girl!” gif waiting to happen.

When can we see it? Come Away is in theaters now.