Watching “Come Away” is one of those odd movie experiences; it’s perfectly pleasant, and often quite lovely, but when it’s over you wonder who it’s for. Probably not for kids, who may well find this prequel/mashup of “Peter Pan” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (with a sprinkling of “Oliver Twist” just for atmosphere) a little too scary when it’s not being a little too sad. And probably not really for adults either, though many of us will appreciate the performances and production design; it feels a little too slight and childlike, like it hasn’t quite grown into what it wants to be.
Told as a nighttime story read by a beautifully dressed, Victorian-era mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), “Come Away” is the tale of Alice (Keira Chansa) and Peter (Jordan Nash), the two youngest children in a handsome Victorian family. They live in a picture-perfect country home that looks like Howards End (fun fact: “Come Away” production designer Luciana Arrighi won an Oscar for “Howards End”) and happily play imaginative games together, with the support of their loving parents Jack (David Oyelowo) and Rose (Angelina Jolie). And then — well, something awful happens, and the children try to figure out how to solve their parents’ problems and become happy again. Peter finds himself leading a band of Lost Boys; Alice downs a bottle labeled “Drink Me” and is quickly transformed.
Directed by Brenda Chapman (“Brave”), “Come Away” is very good at conveying the magic of a child’s world; how Peter and Alice look at a battered rowboat and see a pirate ship, how Alice hears fairies in the pearly peal of a tiny bell her mother gives her. The performances from the strong cast (which also includes drop-ins from Michael Caine — in a card room called “Mickey’s”! — and Derek Jacobi) are impeccable. And those who love pretty period movies will drink up — like Alice — the elaborate frocks, the delicate china, the William Morris wallpaper, the abundant Pre-Raphaelite hair. (In this movie, even the bread and jam is exquisite.)
Maybe “Come Away” would work better on the big screen, so you can get lost in its beauty. (In the Seattle area, it’s available only via streaming.) But it just feels like a pretty idea that didn’t get fully developed; an origin story that we didn’t need. Peter and Alice — the ones of literary legend — shouldn’t have to split a movie, particularly one that gives both of them short shrift. And it’s hard to find much enthusiasm these days for a movie so melancholy; one in which the narrator mother describes Peter as being in “a world more full of weeping than he can understand.”