Pleasant memories are often appreciated or celebrated in revisiting an old story, preferably before bedtime. Whether it’s more fantastical or rooted in the real world, we’ve had that idea parlayed in remake after literary remake with varying results. Paddington has maintained the bar, while Joe Wright’s Pan remains the big-budget lame duck who became too farcical for its edgy fantasy flavor. Only in 2020 could family audiences at home indulge in a medium-budget tale that’s as refreshing as it is grounded: with a few struggles but bringing its message home. An admirable start for animation vet Brenda Chapman, in her live-action directorial debut, Come Away.
To go in expecting another fantasy epic like Hook or Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland would be a mistake to avoid. Chapman opts not to aim so high. Instead, her spin (from a script by newcomer Marissa Kate Goodhill) on the combined early lives of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan is more down to earth, very low on the ground, but no less imaginative. And that starts with Peter (Jordan A. Nash), the youngest, and most rambunctious, of the otherwise mid-upper-class Littleton clan. They’re a simple bunch, living in the country. Sister Alice (Keira Chansa) is in most ways his opposite, her eye toward play leaning on the constructive, holding tea parties in practice. Their eldest brother David (Reece Yates) was the glue keeping all of them together on adventures roaming about in their backyard, he, and Peter relishing in crafting legends of daring-do in an abandoned raft on a nearby river.
That bond takes a turn when a tragic drowning ends David’s story too soon, putting the kids, homemaker mom Rose (Angelina Jolie), and resident maid Eleanor (Anna Chancellor) in a didactic turmoil, to split the family apart. Peter’s bad grades may send him to a stricter school, while Alice is looking to further study her elocution, and David faces some outstanding debts. Goodhill’s screenplay splits off into all directions, only vaguely holding onto its point, like a pencil to its worn-out eraser. The whimsy is not lost when the kids try to help their father, but that utter disjointedness cannot be resolved no matter what happens.
Chapman is a bit too eager to hold onto that escapist element, making the most of a plot that cannot stay on topic. Difficult to do any of that if the written page doesn’t call to really escape anywhere. We see aged English locales echoing the pattern of The Personal History of David Copperfield among others, with only mild glimpses of a “what could’ve been” fantasy realm, with supporting characters tailored to match the archetype. For Alice and Peter, it’s a random crowd of street urchins, as one lone example. Jack is pitted with darker demons in the capitalist game, with Derek Jacobi and a nefariously mustached Michael Caine making notably minor appearances to raise Oyelowo’s blood pressure a bit too high to cope. It skyrockets even further while butting heads with Clarke Peters playing a third figure in the guy’s past life.
The guy who once held his composure under great extremes as a modern civil rights authority in Selma appears to crack easily under pressure. He’s an enjoyable enough father figure, albeit in need of a rewrite to solidify both his character motivation and his chemistry with Jolie. Strained, and yet still genuine. All hurdles that Chapman has no business having to jump through, given her background in solving story problems with high marks of efficacy in the more flexible world of animation. Much like how she couldn’t save Pixar’s Brave after its original treatment had been tossed, she’s once again outwitted by a script knowing of its target audience and thus robbed of reaching its full potential. Chapman tries so hard, so too her cast. But even they can’t force any sort of intent or focus here, just as the childlike optimism of Peter and Alice discovering their gifts for restoring family order propels a rather rushed final act.
While we do see a new lens placed on this interestingly fractured “not quite a fairytale”, it is specked with dust and fingerprints, and in need of better care and refinement. Come Away gets so close to achieving that finite spot all book-based reboots aim for but misses the same way most seem to. The ambition is high, but the need to keep its plotlines glued together and, for lack of a better term, completely on a sensical curve, drains Chapman’s energy as a director. It will never soar to the lengths of its drawn inspiration. But her directorial pluck, eye for detail, and educated casting choice aid to make up the difference. We’ll have to settle for floating just above ground and letting the youngster have most of the fun here. They’ll get a placid Thanksgiving romp; adults be warned it may underwhelm. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Come Away is in select theaters and at home this weekend; rated PG for strong thematic content, some violence, fantasy action, and unsettling images; 94 minutes.