In Brenda Chapman’s ‘Come Away,’ Two Classic Stories Unite To Tell a Tale of One Family’s Heartbreak

Come Away” reimagines not one but two classic stories. Director Brenda Chapman takes “Peter Pan” and “Alice in Wonderland” and combines them into a melancholy coming-of-age tale where imagination can be an escape from life’s more painful truths. “The idea came from the writer, Marissa Goodhill. She wrote a beautiful script. It wasn’t just ‘Peter Pan’ but ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and she had this whole concept of combining those two stories. It was just brilliant,” Chapman told Entertainment Voice. A director whose name is attached to some of the most popular animated films of recent years, “Come Away” also marks Chapman’s first foray into live action.

The story is set in 19th-century England. Alice (Keira Chansa), Peter (Jordan A. Nash) and David (Reece Yates) are siblings living in an idyllic rural home with parents Rose (Angelina Jolie) and Jack Littleton (David Oyelowo). Jack makes a living constructing pristine model ships for aristocratic customers and Peter is proving to be good at the craft as well. Peter and Alice both escape into worlds of fantasy and imagination, which is encouraged by Rose, who gives Alice a “tinkerbell” with “magic dust.” Then tragedy strikes when David is killed and dark clouds loom over the home. Peter’s despair leads him to get into gambling problems with a local crook, Captain James (David Gyasi), who happens to have a crocodile mounted on his wall. As they grapple with these threatening developments, Peter and Alice descend further into their imagined alternative worlds, but just how fake are they? Peter comes across a band of “lost boys” building a pirate ship and Alice finds a rabbit hole that leads to another world. Is it all in their minds or have they tapped into magical possibilities?

“The story explores the origins of how the children got into the worlds of these stories. It revolves around their imaginations and how they use them to cope with family tragedy,” said Chapman. “Come Away” does take on more of the tone of a family movie focused on loss and the scars it can leave behind. Chapman has worked for years in combining fantasy and imaginative themes with mature, challenging content as a writer and director in animated classics like “The Lion King,” “The Prince of Egypt” and “Brave,” for which she became the first woman to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar. “I had never had a desire to do live action because it just seemed like insanity to me because of the little time you have to create a film. But the script was so alluring that I felt if I do one, this is the one I should. What was difficult to me was the amount of time. Every day you’re climbing this mountain to make sure you have enough footage and all of that. I did love working with the actors more in-depth as they chose the costumes and hairstyles to get them into character. In animation they’re in a sound booth maybe three or four times, and I’d have to paste a lot of artwork around them to get them into the moment.”

For this film Chapman creates an environment both ethereal and rugged, like a dreamscape that hints at the harshness of 19th century life. “I love period films,” said Chapman. “I love Ang Lee’s ‘Sense & Sensibility’ with Emma Thompson and John Sayles’s ‘The Secret of Inish.’ Those were my two spots ahead of me that I looked towards. They were beautiful films that I still love to watch. Just the beauty of what they did was a major influence.” Adding to the film’s lushness is the score by John Debney. It forgoes the usual clichés associated with this kind of story when told in a family film context. Instead it gives the narrative a bittersweet maturity. Chapman understands how some of the more powerful children’s stories have a sense of darkness to them. They are about life’s joys and tragedies. When we are children emotions can be extremely immediate and powerful, which is why traumatic events at such an age can linger well into adulthood. In “Come Away,” the fantastic scenarios Peter and Alice imagine are also a tonic against the horrible moments life throws at them.

“Come Away” is both elegant and personal. Peter and Alice may imagine vivid, colorful fantasies of pirate ships and rabbit holes leading into wondrous forests, but there is real heartbreak in their life. By making the cast diverse with Black and white actors, Chapman also evokes a welcome, deeper humanity. Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo are excellent, registering the limbo of experiencing loss. But Keira Chansa and Jordan A. Nash bring a special combination of young naivety and growing awareness of the world’s crueler aspects. “David had a lot to do with the reason why these actors were chosen,” said Chapman. “I was trying to cast the film and trying to find who the perfect father would be. The script wasn’t originally about a multi-racial family but while reading I wondered why we had to be in the same box we’ve always been in. Then I saw David. I thought I’d like to work with him. I thought, why not? So I started thinking about the story and realized I didn’t have to change a word of the script to have a multiracial story. Everything just worked. David was excited to be part of a project that was a period piece because so many period pieces have whitewashed history. London is a port town. There are many different ethnicities in London. This was an opportunity on so many different levels. David was so willing to accompany this middle-aged white woman on this journey (laughs). I was very grateful for that because I knew I would make a lot of mistakes along the way. That opened the door to put out a broader net for the children.”

“Come Away” builds to a very emotive and melancholic crescendo where more familiar imagery from the Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland stories appear. Chapman draws a fine line between wishful escapism and movies providing grand possibilities. Maybe Peter has found the Lost Boys and Alice has entered Wonderland. Chapman fought hard to make the movie more piercing than your average, popcorn family entertainment. “The thing that drew me was the ability to give you this bittersweet, melancholy tragedy versus joy,” said Chapman, “In animation I’ve never really been able to explore that side of how a family deals with tragedy. In ‘Lion King,’ yes, Mufasa’s death was one thing, but then we immediately went into comedy with Timon and Pumba. For this we get to live in it more.” 

Come Away” releases Nov. 13 on VOD and in select cities.