Director Brenda Chapman says she rarely related to the female characters in the cinematic fairy tales she grew up watching.
“When I was a child, watching mostly Disney fairy tales, I didn’t relate to Snow White and how empty-headed she was and how she dealt with things,” says Chapman. “But as I got older and realized there’s more to things, I started appreciating the depth of, say, the Cinderella story and her resilience, perseverance, and determination to work hard and keep her dreams alive.”
Seeing the negative impact these characterizations had on young women was especially perturbing. So when she began writing and directing her own animated films, like 2012’s Brave — about a young princess who resisted the expectation of marriage — the Mill Valley resident set out to represent women in a different way.
With her latest film, the live-action fantasy Come Away, which opens Nov. 13 in the Bay Area, she aimed to broaden the audience’s horizons with a more expansive revision of the Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan stories by incorporating strong women characters and people of color.
The 94-minute prequel to these classic fairy tales is set in Victorian England, and features two precocious young children, Alice (Keira Chansa) and Peter (Jordan Nash), who must help their parents, Rose (Angelina Jolie) and Jack Littleton (David Oyelowo), recover from the tragic loss of their eldest son, David (Reece Yates). The movie regularly switches from the childrens’ harsh realities to their escapist storybook-style fantasies.
With an interracial couple and three biracial children at its center, the movie, filmed in 2018, feels especially topical this year. For Chapman, the unique casting wasn’t initially done to make a political statement; it just made sense.
“I didn’t know that 2020 was going to happen or that the Black Lives Matter movement would really take hold when we were making the film,” says Chapman. “When I got the script, it wasn’t written as an interracial couple. But I looked at David [Oyelowo] and really wanted to work with him and realized that I wouldn’t have to change a word of the script. It’s just about a couple. [But the casting] added a richness to the story and how people relate to each other across the board.”
When Chapman, a self-described “middle-aged white woman,” recruited Oyelowo (who also ended up coproducing), the pair had discussions about what it would mean to cast the British-Nigerian-American actor in the role and make the Victorian family multiracial. It was critical that this twist on the Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland tales not feel forced.
It turned out though, through Come Away writer Marissa Kate Goodhill’s research of the era, that mixed-race families were more common in and around the port city of London — already a melting pot — than whitewashed Hollywood films had previously revealed in its period pieces.
Not that there wasn’t racism or classicism in Victorian England, but only the latter enters into the film when, in one cringey scene, the snobby Eleanor Morrow (Anna Chancellor) criticizes Jack Littleton (Oyelowo) for being of a lower class than his wife. Color, however, is never made an issue in the film.
Flipping the script is what multiple-award-winning animator and director Brenda Chapman has done throughout her career — both in front of and behind the camera.
When she started her journey as a story artist at Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1987, working on memorable films, such as 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, and as a story supervisor on 1994’s The Lion King, Chapman broke ground as one of the first women in a creative position at a major animation studio.
After helping to launch DreamWorks Animation Studios, where she codirected the 1998 Oscar-winning Prince Of Egypt, she became the first woman to direct an animated feature for a major Hollywood studio. Later, at Pixar Animation Studios, she became the first woman to win an Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe for the Best Animated Feature Film with Brave, for which she created a fairytale about a young princess whose idea of completion didn’t come in the form of a valiant horse-riding prince.
“It’s still kind of a surprise to me when people look at me as a trailblazer,” says Chapman. “Honestly, I just decided, ‘OK, I want to be an artist, an animator at Disney,’ and just pursued that. I think that I hit that right when things were starting to change and just did what I love to do. I had a reputation for being a pretty decent storyteller, so I just kept going.”
Since the same sexist politics that Chapman occasionally encountered in the film industry decades ago still exist — along with racism — the director imagines that there will be those who reject an Alice or Peter Pan of color, just as some vehemently opposed an all-women Ghostbusters cast in 2016, the casting of Halle Bailey in 2021’s The Little Mermaid live-action film, and the interracial relationship depicted by Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in 2016’s A United Kingdom.
All of these films have experienced malignant “review bombing” by “dislike mobs” aiming to tarnish their perception and drive down interest from prospective viewers by reducing their user ratings on online sites like YouTube, IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes.
Come Away is no different, already suffering a significant number of negative reviews on IMDb since its Oct. 9 trailer release — even though the film is not out yet. Chapman anticipates more hate to come once her movie actually opens.
But she hopes that for every potential audience member that’s turned off, she’s able to win over many more.
“I thought that it would be lovely to open up these characters and stories and make them more relatable to a broader audience,” Chapman says. “Granted, the original characters were written as white children, but there are so many interracial couples with families that don’t get to see themselves represented on screen very much and I just felt what a wonderful, welcoming, familiar way to do that. I have no doubt that there are people out there who’ll be fussing about it, but I think it’s time for them to open their minds up about it.”
Showing at The Lot in San Ramon, and available on streaming services.