“It’s a small world after all,” chants the catchiest anthem at the happiest place on Earth. The world of children’s movies seems especially small as Disney’s production empire latches onto familiar tales to uncork a flood of prequels, sequels, spinoffs and reboots. Despite these movies’ mixed reception, the revisionist river has not run dry. The newest contribution to this corpus is the film “Come Away,” which conjures and conjoins the origins of two classic fairytale characters: Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.
Siblings Alice (Keira Chansa), Peter (Jordan A. Nash) and David Littleton (Reece Yates) embark on fantastical adventures during a spirited summer in the placid English countryside. Magic comes in the form of John Debney’s musical score as the camera swoops to capture the lush forest. While the children play outside, Jack, a skilled miniaturist played by David Oyelowo, enjoys quietude in the quaint wooden cabin with his wife Rose (Angelina Jolie). Jolie delivers a surprisingly underwhelming performance, to the point where even Alice seems bored by the banal bedtime stories.
A devastating tragedy strikes the Littleton family and sends each member spiraling into grief-stricken sorrow while the family collectively confronts financial instability. The story takes a discordantly dark turn when Jack returns to his gambling while Rose douses her throat in liquor. Alice and Peter cope through their imagination, which begins to bleed into reality.
“Come Away” doesn’t bring many specifics, and it’s unclear when the story takes place. The outsourced stories offer little help since Lewis Carroll published “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in 1865 while Scottish author J.M. Barrie conceived of Peter Pan in the 1900s. Based on the characters’ garb and their conservative aunt’s garbled dialogue about ladylike manners, “Come Away” seems vaguely set in 19th century England. Though it may seem like splitting hairs to scrutinize the film’s setting, the foggy context speaks to a larger problem: The film’s central fairy tales are mismatched and muddled.
Screenwriter Marissa Kate Goodhill speckles allusions to the original legends, such as David’s silver pocket watch from the White Rabbit and Alice’s small “Tinker’s Bell,” but the lukewarm script leaves these Easter eggs to spoil. As if trapped to flypaper, the camera sticks to depicting the characters’ airless grief, and the doors to wonder, magic and excitement struggle to remain ajar.
Director Brenda Chapman is no stranger to fairy tales. From “The Prince of Egypt” to “Brave,” her creative compass has shaped animated movies for decades, but “Come Away” marks her live-action debut. The film attempts to make strides in diverse representation by recasting traditionally white and European stories in a multiracial, Black family. Despite the aspiration to update antiquated conventions, the type of “colorblind casting” in “Come Away” fails to correct a different form of blindness.
Nash’s character Peter imagines adventures of sword fights and pirate ships, but the boy’s fantasies also project primitive, reductive stereotypes of Native American tribal culture. These racial depictions pervaded the original “Peter Pan” stories as well as Disney’s obscenely offensive 1953 adaptation; “Come Away” is less problematic than its rampantly racist predecessors, but that’s an absurdly low bar. It’s still uncomfortable to watch a young boy internalize caricatures about Indigenous cultures.
“Come Away” feels like a rough draft for fairy-tale fan fiction. With muddled allusions and passive performances, neither the camera nor the characters can summon the spirit to keep this movie afloat. While the fusion of these iconic characters brims with potential, “Come Away” presents a rather grim fairy tale.