The trick to adapting Peter Pan is embracing that it’s a tragedy at its core. So many children’s stories are sadder and often more horrifying than they appear, though only in ways that become more clear once the reader grows up. Two of the most familiar English-language children’s stories, and among the most frequently adapted, are Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, each of which gets blended into an odd remix in the new live-action fantasy drama Come Away. Some elements of the concept are fascinating, but the way in which the filmmakers treat the stories being remixed as upbeat and magical through and through implies a misguided sense of what these stories are really about.
Come Away boasts an impressive pedigree both behind and in front of the camera. Shifting from animation to live-action, Brenda Chapman (co-director of Pixar’s Brave) works with a script that posits a world in which Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland – before they were the characters we all know – were brother and sister in England. Come Away is ostensibly the story of how they become the Peter and Alice who embark upon their respective adventures. Their parents are played by Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo, and the cast also features Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Derek Jacobi, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Anna Chancellor. Come Away, unsurprisingly, looks great. Chapman’s work with Disney and Pixar allows for the film to boast an appropriately magical look towards the way a child’s mind works, treating the whole world as their playground.
There are a couple of key problems with Come Away, both of which will involve spoilers.
The framing device of the film features Mbatha-Raw as the grown-up version of Alice (Keira Chansa) telling the story of her childhood to her own children. Anyone with a passing familiarity of the stories of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland may well have a hunch where Come Away will end. Peter (Jordan Nash) transitions from being a smart but frustrated little boy into the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, happier in Never Land than in England. Alice, on the other hand, may spend time in Wonderland, but she returns home before long. And, as the final moments show, she grows up, gets married, and has three children: Wendy, Michael and John, the three of whom fly off on an adventure with the perpetually youthful Peter just after she finishes telling them the story of her youth.
The final shots of Come Away are tinged with the same kind of wistful excitement that you’ll find in Disney’s version of Peter Pan or even the slightly more nuanced 2003 adaptation of the J.M. Barrie story starring Jason Isaacs and Olivia Williams. It’s hard not to watch the finale of Come Away and get a sense that we should be happy to see Peter essentially living out the story we’ve heard before, with his sister’s children in tow. Alice doesn’t seem terribly concerned that her own kids have left for at least an awfully big adventure if not more. (Though Alice is married, we don’t see her husband’s reaction to the kids being gone.)
Much of Come Away, leading up to this point, totters between the heartbreaking and the hopeful. Peter and Alice’s parents Rose and Jack (Jolie and Oyelowo) seem perfectly happy at the start until the entire family is struck by a familial loss, when their oldest child David dies. Afterwards, Rose is exhorted by her sister (Chancellor) to let Alice be trained in the ways of being a proper lady, and Jack, desperate to make ends meet, tries his hand at gambling again to ensure that his kids can have the proper education and upbringing David was receiving before his death.
In the middle of this adult drama, Peter and Alice are trying to stay kids, inventing wholesale worlds of escape and adventure that seem an awful lot like the worlds of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, replete with nefarious pirates (such as one played by Gyasi), a mad hatter (Clarke Peters), and more. Some of the connections between fantasy and reality fray pretty quickly in the third act. As it turns out, it’s not just that Gyasi and Peters’ characters are reminiscent of Captain Hook and the Mad Hatter – they’re, respectively, Jack’s brother and father! (For some reason!) The most troubling break is in that final reveal, though.
So much of Come Away’s playtime fantasy can be interpreted as Chapman crafting images that are meant to evoke a child’s imagination without implying that those imaginative flourishes are real. When we see the three kids playing pirates with sticks that quickly morph into swords, it’s an effective visual that saves verbal exposition in favor of visual communication. But it’s precisely that directorial choice that allows the audience to presume that much, if not all, of the fantastical elements in Come Away are purely in the kids’ heads. (At a critical point, Alice visualizes her mother as the dastardly Queen of Hearts, shouting “Off with her head!” With that, at least, Jolie has now played – kind of – two different Disney villainesses.) The twist that Peter apparently really can’t or won’t grow up is just kind of heartbreaking, the same way that the entire Peter Pan myth is. It’s easy enough in the moment to find the magic, because watching a kid cavort and play is fun. Imagining that kid as having been a perpetual kid for decades, refusing to grow at all, is either tragic or pathetic.
The imbalance of tones is arguably why Come Away struggles. In the span of just 90 minutes, the film tries to give equal time and dimension to both parents and both living children, and in doing so, thread a creative needle between the exciting and the heartbreaking. Anyone who knows the world of animation will be pleased to see that Brenda Chapman has made the leap to live-action directing as smoothly as other animators – whatever issues there are in the screenplay don’t crop up in her confident direction. Like Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird before her, Chapman should be given the chance to explore other live-action opportunities because she clearly has the acumen and skill. But where animated films aren’t just rooted in fairy-tale myths and legends, they often blend excitement and heartbreak, Come Away runs into a problem. Live-action fare can’t hide the sadness in fairy-tale legend the way that animation can.
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