On paper, Come Away sounds like a magical fantasy destined to captivate viewers young and old; its assets include a starry cast led by Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo and a story that uses elements of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan to tell an entirely new tale. Yet the movie, written by Marissa Kate Goodhill and directed by Brenda Chapman, is a mishmash of ideas and metaphors that never come together. As a result, it never truly takes flight.
The story centers on the Littleton family. While parents Rose (Jolie, rarely speaking above a whisper) and Jack (Oyelowo) work in the house, their three children — eldest son David (Reece Yates) and his siblings, the none-too-subtly named Alice (Keira Chansa) and Peter (Jordan A. Nash) — play outside, lost in a world of fantasy. Even when we first meet them, their imaginary games include elements of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, including white rabbits, pirate ships and tea parties. Their parents encourage their make-believe adventures, even as Rose’s sister Eleanor (Anna Chancellor) snipes that Alice is not being properly educated in how to be a lady. (The characters apparently live in a post-racial society, but not one free of classism or limited ideas about women’s roles.)
Then tragedy strikes. An accident claims David’s life and plunges the family into a cloud of grief. Rose copes by drinking while Jack returns to a long-abandoned gambling habit, and both neglect their remaining children. Meanwhile, Alice and Peter’s desire to help their parents leads to a head-scratching trip to London where they encounter a dangerous man who turns out to have a preposterously unlikely connection to their father. While this interlude includes a fun performance by Clarke Peters as the film’s version of the Mad Hatter, that isn’t enough to redeem the narrative’s left-field decision to have the children take on the weight of their parents’ problems.
Individual viewers’ perspectives on this choice may determine how they ultimately feel about the film. Yet as the story spins towards its conclusion, Peter’s permanent departure for Neverland as a result of his desire to help his father comes across as unbearably sad for the Littleton family, no matter what metaphor is used to explain it.
Meanwhile, although the film never hits viewers over the head with every one of its allusions to Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, the question remains why these particular children’s books were incorporated into the story at all. The film takes pains to work them in as much as possible, and for interested viewers, watching it can become like a game of spot the reference – a red queen here, a lost boy there. But the dependence on these tales forces the film to conform to them in a way that never lets Come Away’s original story completely stand on its own.
At only 94 minutes, the film feels busy and overstuffed, and none of its disparate parts truly enchant. Although the film looks beautiful and the child actors turn in impressive performances, that magic never translates to the story itself. Come Away seems too nebulous for children and too disjointed for adults, while providing none of the emotional resonance viewers might expect from a film that boasts such promising elements.