When animation directors make the jump to directing live-action, the transition can be fraught. Just ask Andrew Stanton, whose live-action debut, John Carter, was a huge bomb for Disney several years ago.Thankfully though, Brenda Chapman, the director of Prince of Egypt and Pixar’s Oscar-winning Brave, successfully makes the leap with Come Away, a delightful fairytale that imagines what might have happened if Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were siblings before they became the characters we know and love.
Come Away premiered in the Kids section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and while it’s definitely a movie that younger audiences can enjoy, that shouldn’t discourage teens or adults from seeking this out, too. The A-list talent involved should be a nice draw: in addition to Chapman’s pedigree behind the camera, Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) and David Oyelowo (Selma) play the children’s parents, and recognizable faces like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Clarke Peters, Derek Jacobi, and more pop up throughout. (Michael Caine is in the movie for about two minutes, but his appearance is notable only because he’s sporting a comically large mustache.)
But primarily, this is the story of Peter (Jordan A. Nash), Alice (Keira Chansa), and their older brother David (Reece Yates), who spend their days playing in the gorgeous woods outside their country home. Their imaginations run wild, and Peter’s most of all: he’s failing his classes in school because he’s constantly picturing things like pirate quests instead of studying arithmetic. During one of the kids’ backyard adventures as pirates, Alice’s favorite stuffed animal (a white rabbit, naturally) is taken hostage. Chapman depicts their exploits in a way I can’t recall seeing before: they all pretend-fight using sticks, but the sticks visibly change into real swords in the middle of a shot. The same goes for a stick/spear thrown by Alice (playing as Tiger-Lilly), and an “arrow” David launches from a “bow.” And when the trio stumbles on an overturned boat just beyond the boundary of where they’re supposed to stop playing, it transforms into a working pirate ship.
If the name “David” doesn’t sound recognizable from either Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, you’re not misremembering – and that absence is a hint that things don’t exactly turn out well for David. An accident sends the central family into despair, with Jolie and Oyelowo both delivering outstanding work as warm, loving parents who are suddenly confronted with unimaginable tragedy. Jolie’s Rose is driven to drink, while Oyelowo’s Jack is tempted to return to his former life as a gambler to make the money the family needs to survive. Under this dark cloud, Peter and Alice are forced to grow up much faster than normal 8-year-olds, and the sad heart of the film is about how families can be torn apart or grow stronger together in the face of great loss.
But despite that somewhat depressing description, there’s also lots of fun to be had in Come Away, specifically in how it weaves in distinct elements from the fairy tale stories we know. Prequels can be tricky: nods to the familiar are expected, but if the film becomes little more than a checklist of familiar things, the end result can feel grating and pandering (*cough*, Solo: A Star Wars Story). This is Come Away’s biggest tightrope, and it walks it confidently without missing a step. Every nod to recognizable lore is totally organic to this story, much in the way that the Netflix animated movie Klaus took an organic approach to telling Santa Claus’ origin. (Both sound a little eye roll-inducing on paper, but are ultimately so charming that all doubt eventually fades away.) I won’t give away any more of the movie’s references here, because I think the movie’s primary draw is seeing exactly how those touchstone fairytale elements factor into the plot.
A creative reimagining sprinkled with fairy dust, Come Away succeeds on the strength of its whimsical (but not overly whimsical) script by Marissa Kate Goodhill and its impressive ensemble cast, and soars thanks to Chapman’s stellar direction. A new children’s classic has arrived, and this timeless fairytale will surely enchant audiences for generations to come.