Director Brenda Chapman is perhaps best known for Brave, Disney Pixar’s 2012 animation about a fierce Scottish princess on a quest to life a curse from her mother. Prior to Brave her filmography ranged from co-directing the iconic 1998 animated feature Prince of Egypt, being heavily involved in the story department for Hunchback of Notre Dame and the original Lion King, to working as a storyboard artist for the likes of The Little Mermaid and even The Road to El Dorado. Talk about a legendary CV. Sadly, her live action debut leaves a lot to be desired.
Siblings Peter (Jordan Nash), Alice (Keira Chansa) and David (Reece Yates) live with their mother (Angelina Jolie) and father (David Oyelowo) in a quintessential 18th century fairytale cottage somewhere in the English countryside. Their days are spent having tea parties and running through the woods pretending to be Native Americans. But when the sudden death of the eldest child sends the family into a pit of despair, Peter and Alice try to escape it by taking on their parents’ troubles themselves. Filled to the brim with references (the title even nods to Yeats), their adventure patchworks together a reimagining of how and why J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Lewis Carroll’s Alice found their way to Neverland and Wonderland.
It’s hard to tell if it’s the script or the editing that makes the narrative fractured. Perhaps in an attempt to make Come Away feel dreamlike, it becomes scattered over too many paths, too many protagonists, too much potential that doesn’t get fully realised. As much as the genre of live action fairy tale films is underestimated and underused, you can’t help but feel that Chapman could have executed her story better through an animated medium. Sequences that would be glorious when allowed the freedom of hand-drawn or computer-generated images pale when having to balance the practicality of working with lighting, choreography with child actors, and camera movement restricted by space.
The characters feel theatrical in a way that, once again, feels at home in animated films where voices and exclamation are paramount; but feels exaggerated and corny in live action. Despite that, however, the few ties holding the ship down on a rather stormy sea are the all-star cast placed around Nash and Chansa, the two principle child actors, both of whom hold their own pretty well opposite the talents of Jolie and Oyelowo. Applause must also go to Gugu Mbatha-Raw who, with a total of three minutes screen time max as the grown-up Alice, gives yet another wholly moving and layered performance.
While the ways contemporary storytellers blend together Carroll and Barrie’s heroes continues to delight many of us who hold our childhood stories dear, it’s unclear why they were chosen for this particular story. While the countless references give a momentary spark of satisfaction, Chapman and writer Marissa Kate Goodhill leave so many in-jokes about other stories as well, Peter and Alice specifically feel somewhat obsolete. Their significance may have started as a route to exploring how keeping both responsibility and imagination a part of our lives becomes a balancing act as we grow up. But, as with so many children’s films, it’s too concerned with fixing the adults’ problems while the children have to just experience it. Peter and Alice learn by going through things rather than being given the agency to make them happen.
A heartfelt and sweet film, Come Away can’t choose what it is for long enough to execute the story. Chapman does use her background in animation to seamlessly integrate special effects that blend the children’s fantasies into the ‘real world’, but a slightly more contained approach to the story could have distributed the audience’s attention (not to mention the budget) a little better between a few well-chosen set pieces rather than a dizzying selection of locations, lavish costumes and a seemingly endless supply of whimsical props that double-up as metaphors. Come Away is likely fated to become one of those utterly immersive childhood films akin to The Secret of Moonacre or The Spiderwick Chronicles that ultimately is forgotten as we age, though perhaps rediscovered years later to provide a little nostalgia trip.
Come Away is released in cinemas on December 18th
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.