With its mixed-race family, Brenda Chapman’s “Come Away” has become a movie of the moment.
“That’s been the kind of bizarre thing about it all,” Chapman says via phone from her Mill Valley home, where she’s riding out the pandemic. “When I read the script and first started casting for it, I had this moment where I thought, ‘Wait! Why can’t I do it this way?’”
Written by Marissa Kate Goodhill, “Come Away” is a family-friendly, fantasy-drama that imagines what might have happened if Alice (of Wonderland fame) and Peter Pan were brother and sister.
In the movie, which opens in theaters and on demand Friday, the children have a white mother (Angelina Jolie) and a Black father (David Oyelowo), and the children are dark-skinned.
“For some reason, when I was looking at the list of women, it was all white,” says Chapman, “but when I got the list they were suggesting for men, there was a plethora of color in there.”
At first Chapman felt stuck, but then she had her revelation. “When I saw David, there was something about him that just felt right. So I approached the producers and said, ‘I think this will work without changing one thing in the script.’”
She’s extremely proud of the result. “What a wonderful thing to open up this story for a whole other audience! Now they can see themselves in these stories!” she says. (Coincidentally, this year’s “Wendy,” which Chapman says she hasn’t seen, featured a Black Peter Pan.)
Chapman’s name may be familiar to Bay Area audiences as the initial writer and director of Pixar’s Oscar-winning “Brave.” She’s also the first woman to direct an animated feature, the excellent “The Prince of Egypt,” for a major studio.
During her long career, she has worked in virtually every other capacity in the world of animation, from “lip-sync checker” on made-for-TV cartoons, to an “inbetweening” artist on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and contributing to the story of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“My first love is animation,” she says. She admits that, while she has read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan” books by Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie, she was more familiar with the Disney animated films.
“I never actually thought I’d direct a live action film. But I got this script, and I thought, well if I’m gonna do one!” She laughs. “It all spoke to me so strongly.”
But “Come Away” does have animation, as well as beautiful sequences of imaginative play as Alice (Keira Chansa), Peter (Jordan A. Nash) and their older brother David (Reece Yates) pretend to be pirates and attend tea parties.
Sticks magically turn into swords and a broken-down rowboat becomes a full pirate ship!
Chapman says she initially planned to use very little visual FX in the movie, simply showing a stick, cutting away, and then showing a sword, but she likes how imaginative the scenes are now. “It’s so childlike!” she says.
Fans of Wonderland and Neverland will delight in subtle Easter eggs and homages sprinkled throughout the movie, such as a pair of urns that resemble Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
In addition, live-action characters bear a resemblance to the classic book and movie characters. (Derek Jacobi’s character is the tortoise.)
Aside from giving a warm hug to people of color, “Come Away” is a perfect 2020 movie for another, profoundly simple reason: “Right now I think it’s a good thing to have imaginations to get lost in while the world does all this crazy stuff,” says Chapman.
She adds, “I hope we can find a way to keep going to the movies alive after all this is over. There’s something about that communal event and feeling that wash of laughter or dread or sadness. There’s something you just can’t get sitting by yourself.”
Meanwhile, with the movie’s release imminent, Chapman has a plan. She says, “I’ve been doing some reading, but I think it’s time to dive in and watch some films.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Caine
Written by: Marissa Kate Goodhill
Directed by: Brenda Chapman
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes