For her first live-action feature, Oscar-winning filmmaker Brenda Chapman was determined to play the hits, but with the kind of personal twist she’s put on animated classics like “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Brave” throughout her career. A fairy tale obsessive from the jump — she literally grew up reading Classics Illustrated Junior comic books featuring stories like “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” — Chapman’s “Come Away” is a perfect fit for her talents and interests, plotting an inventive mash-up of both “Peter Pan” and “Alice in Wonderland” in a family-centric package.
The film, written by Marissa Kate Goodhill, serves as something of a prequel to the beloved stories involving the boy who wouldn’t grow up and the girl who falls into a wacky world through a rabbit hole. “Come Away” supposes, what if they were siblings? From there, the film weaves a creative tale of fantasy and family, starring a stacked cast as the tragedy-stricken Littleton clan, including David Oyelowo, Angelina Jolie, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and rising stars Keira Chansa and Jordan Nash. If it sounds ambitious and creative and sweet, well, that’s pure Chapman, but the road hasn’t been smooth for the good-hearted family film.
In late October, The Hollywood Reporter noted that the film had been a target of “review bombing,” “the practice of augmenting user-generated ratings and reviews to influence the perception of a film, television series or other content.” Eventually, IMDb disabled its user rating system until the film actually opened to wide audiences, in an attempt to stave off fake, malicious reviews. While it’s not entirely possible to know why users had targeted the film, THR hit upon a likely culprit, reporting that “many of the user comments on the trailer focused on the fact that the characters of Alice and Peter were being portrayed by nonwhite child actors.”
In 2018, a similar fate befell Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” adaptation, and the Disney film was besieged by nasty, likely fake reviews more than a month before it opened, many of them seemingly inspired by the fact that the film was a major blockbuster directed by a woman of color and featuring a diverse cast.
Chapman has no regrets over her casting choices, but that doesn’t mean the attacks on the film and its cast don’t sting. “It just made me sad, like so much of our society these days, the last four years,” she told IndieWire during a recent interview. “It just makes me sad that we haven’t risen above all this. People are people and we all have our hopes and dreams and disappointments, and to have someone just purposely go out because they’re racial bigots to destroy something, it’s just hateful and it just makes me sad.”
Chapman admitted that when she first saw Oyelowo’s name listed on a list of casting possibilities, she felt disappointed she couldn’t cast the actor. “I was disappointed, oh, it’s too bad, I’d love to work with him, and I moved on and then I sort of went back to his name like, wait a minute, why not?,” she said. “And then, going through the story in my mind, it was like, I don’t need to change anything. It would open up the story so much more.”
After casting Oyelowo, Chapman said, he helped bring in Jolie to play his wife, “because they both have multiracial families and it just seemed like everything started falling into place. … I was kind of ashamed of myself for even passing it up initially, and just was like, why did I do that? So as a society, we’ve really got to shift.”
She added, “I didn’t choose David for political reasons, I chose him because I thought he was the best person to play Jack, because he’s got such a warmth and a presence on screen that it just felt like I looked at the story and I thought this would just add so much depth to it. It was an artistic choice.”
“Come Away” is now available in select theaters and on VOD and various digital platforms.