With stories like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, what I like to see in movies is real engagement with their themes. Children's fantasy of that mid-nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century time was deeply psychological, so there is a lot to play with besides just bringing the characters and imagery to life (as has already been done plenty of times, often I might add without much engagement with the themes). Brenda Chapman's Come Away provides a unique interaction with the themes of children's fantasy stories.
While movies like Finding Neverland are essentially made for adults and films like A Little Princess are made for the family, Come Away lies somewhere in between. At its darkest, it has almost a spot of Pan's Labyrinth. But at its lightest, it is slightly reminiscent of Bridge to Terebithia. It is not a retelling of Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland because those already exist. Instead, it is the story of a family in their darkest hour.
I will take a moment to praise the racial diversity of the cast (and to wonder why, especially given all of the 2020 conversations, films like this don't get more attention). Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo are pretty familiar faces to me at this point as they're both had some pretty great roles in the past few years. Besides the Littleton siblings, we also had diversity in the troupe of children they meet in London. Even though they're the equivalent of the Lost Boys, the oldest boy in particular reminded me of the Artful Dodger--especially after my comments after David Copperfield about how there could easily be a non-white Dodger casting. Anyways, Fagin's boys are a lot like the Lost Boys, aren't they?
We also have a Victorian interracial marriage. There is something very subtle and deliberate about the opening scenes. We see the children first, then Angelina Jolie as their mother, and then we see David Oyelowo as their father and confirmation of the interracial marriage. We see both she and he dressed in upper class clothes, so when we first see him in his workshop we're not sure if it's just a hobby or his living (aka. a trade and not an upper class role). Then we realize that yes, he is a tradesman, and we see his wife working in the kitchen with only one servant to help. So Rose's sister's comments about him have this subtlety to them: she is talking of class and never brings up race, but it's a visual that we do see on screen. So it's like the beginning scenes portray this magic, beautiful family--and then the rest of the film introduces all the messiness of life.
Notice this, too, in how the fantasy/play sequences are portrayed. Initially, we see the three siblings playing at being Peter Pan and Tiger Lily and they have these broad smiles of joy on their faces. Later, though, we see other scenes. The Lost Boys tumbling out of a tree to entice Peter to come away. Alice shrinking down below her bedside table after drinking her mother's "potion." The fantasy has becoming heartbreaking instead of heartwarming. It is no longer happy imaginations running wild; it is hurting hearts trying to escape their pain.
And this is how we come to the curious thing about how this film is put together. Peter Pan, you see, never grows up (it's Wendy that does that)--and the story portrays this with awareness of the tragedy that he will never grow up. But Alice in Wonderland is a coming of age story; Alice walks into Wonderland a child and walks out ready to begin her growing up and the formation of her identity as an individual. This duality is exactly what happens to the Littleton children: one grows up and one does not. One is Peter Pan and one is Alice. One falls away to fantasy; the other uses it to help her make her way in the real world. That is engagement with theme.
It's quite a heartbreaking movie, and there is some great material about the parents and Rose's sister and Jack's father and brother, as well. But I only have so much space in one post. While perhaps the ending of the movie felt a little unresolved in comparison to the careful subtlety of the earlier sequences, overall this was a good film. It has appeal both to be a family favorite and to satisfy the eager analysis of viewers like me.