Eight-year-old Alice Littleton loves to follow her imagination down the rabbit hole and in whatever fun direction it may lead. In fact, she and her older brother, David, and younger sibling, Peter, are always eager for a little romping and make-believing at any time of the day.
You might find them enjoying a spot of tea with Alice’s stuffed animals, fighting make-believe Indians with stick swords, or swinging with a whoop onto an imaginary ship full of growling pirates and snapping crocodiles. In fact, the only thing that generally curtails their ebullient joy together during freetime is when their mother insists that young Peter stay in to attend to his studies.
All of their imaginative joy is quickly and painfully struck down one day, however, when older brother David is unexpectedly taken from them in a horrible accident during their play. Alice and Peter are left in shock. One moment David was there and the next he was no more. And his death devastates their whole loving family.
Soon after, Alice and Peter’s parents start doing things that they would never have considered before: things designed to numb their pain, but that only plunge the family deeper into distress.
The children look to each other and wonder if, somehow, they can do something to help their struggling parents. Should they grow up more quickly? Should they study harder? Can they sell something to bring in money? Is there anything that will take the pain out of their mother and father’s eyes?
The more they think, though, the more young Alice and Peter turn to the things of fantasy that flit through their minds. For in this very real and achingly painful world they seem powerless, but in the world just beyond the door of their imaginations, literally anything is possible.
What would that Peter and Alice do in a situation like this?
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that innocence and imagination are character qualities of great value. And the film stresses that parents, in spite of their own anguish, have a responsibility to the children in their charge. “Life is like a cup of tea, it’s all in how you make it,” someone once said. And in like form this film tells us: “Pain is universal, it all comes down to how you deal with it.”
Rose and Jack, Peter and Alice’s mom and dad, repeatedly tell their kids how much they love them. And the children’s Aunt Eleanor also takes steps to help them and their family (although her choices aren’t always the wisest).
There’s no directly spiritual content here, but the film pulls imaginary and sometimes magical sequences from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as well as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and mixes them into the action.
For example, Alice and Peter are told a bedtime story about a group of orphans forced into slave labor. But when those put-upon kids sleep, their dreams turn into a golden “dreamdust” that sets them free. Later that golden dust plays a part in Peter and Alice’s real-life story.
A number of fights alternate between child’s play with sticks to actual battles with real swords, arrows and spears. People are slashed and stabbed bloodlessly and in broadly theatrical ways. Most all of those clashes are kept quite fanciful.
In the real world, however, David falls into a stream and lightning strikes, killing him instantly. (The camera lingers on his suddenly limp submerged form and then follows something he drops to stream bed below.) We see a photograph of his body in a coffin.
Thugs in the streets of London chase the children and a group of street urchins they get mixed in with. Kids are threatened by snarling adults. A man named Captain James brandishes a hot and glowing branding iron bearing the initials CJ. Then he puts it away. Later, though, we see that same brand as a raw wound burned into someone’s wrist.
CJ’s thugs repeatedly threaten Alice and Peter’s father, Jack, over a gambling debt. They push him around and smash a window in the Littletons’ home. Those men eventually grab Jack and crush his hand (off-camera). We see Jack wounded, with his bloody limb wrapped in a cloth; and it’s implied that Jack may have had the badly broken hand removed in order to save his arm.
Someone uses the British expressions “blimey” (derived from the oath “god blind me”) and “duffer” (a stupid person).
After her son dies, Rose Littleton drowns her sorrow in glasses of sherry that she gulps down. Alice later calls her out on this, asking her what the “potion” she’s always drinking does, and an embarrassed Rose quickly puts the bottle of alcohol away saying, “This is never for children!” Later, though, Alice finds the bottle and drinks it down (then imagines that she grows very small from the stuff).
Jack goes to a gambling house filled with smoking and drinking patrons.
The segments related to the fantasy tales Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan add a nice creative element to this film, but they can also make it sometimes difficult to keep track of what is reality and what is imagination. And in the course of that blending, young Alice and Peter are sometimes thrust into dangerous situations that many parents would balk at.
After David’s death, Jack is so filled with anguish that he takes the family’s savings and starts gambling again, putting them in debt. Someone lies to the kids and cheats them out of something valuable.
Most grown-ups would agree that a child’s imagination is something quite magical. And even in this day of seemingly perpetual screen use, it’s always a joy to see kids take a moment to step away and then leap off into their own gleeful world of make-believe.
That sensibility is at the core of Come Away. The film blends elements of the fantasy classics Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland into a period piece about a family going through its share of struggles. And in some beautifully shot moments this pic flirts with being a full-on fantasy itself as its young leads look to their imaginations for some guidance in helping the ones they love.
That said, Come Away isn’t always as “magical” as one might expect or hope at first glance. There are some rather grim parts woven into the non-fantasy side of this tale, including the grief-filled death of a beloved child and sibling. And the results of that protracted grief include a mother’s turn to alcohol, a father’s tumble back into a gambling addiction, and his being permanently maimed by London street thugs.
That’s some heavy stuff. And while those bleak moments are never as dark as they could be, and the really bloody things are kept off screen, the threats and perils here could certainly make this pic a little too adult for younger make-believers in your family.
As Alice’s Cheshire Cat once famously said: “Red eyes suit so few.”
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.