- Emma Simmonds
- 14 December 2020
A starry cast fail to conjure much magic in this less than inspiring kids' adventure
'Do people really forget how to dream when they grow up?' a little girl asks her older brother in a film that attempts to replicate the magic of childhood, through homages to Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Unfortunately, the director of Oscar-winning animated adventures The Prince of Egypt and Brave, Brenda Chapman, shows less flair for live-action, while the starry cast she's assembled are hardly at their best.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is our narrator, the grown-up Alice (played as an eight-year-old by Keira Chansa). She tells the story of her family's turmoil, which begins with the death of her eldest brother David (Reece Yates), a studious lad assumed to be the favourite by his sibling Peter (Jordan A Nash). When their mother Rose (Angelina Jolie) checks out in the aftermath of the tragedy, and their father Jack (David Oyelowo) starts gambling again, the children take it upon themselves to save the day.
The film combines details from the aforementioned childhood favourites in a way that never quite coheres, while its own ideas remain frustratingly underdeveloped. Still, the focus on a mixed-race family in a children's period adventure is refreshing. There's some charm in the way the kids live out an imagination-fuelled existence in the countryside, before things take a turn, and the child actors are earnest and endearing. In support, big names like Michael Caine, Anna Chancellor and Derek Jacobi do their fairly predictable and largely fleeting thing, with Ned Dennehy and David Gyasi bringing a touch of agreeable menace to the table.
But Clarke Peters' mad hatter pawnbroker doesn't work and the film's biggest draws, Jolie and Oyelowo, are also miscast. Playing the children's glamorous, perma-pouting mother – who doesn't seem written that way – Jolie is distractingly pristine in her grief. As her supposedly lowly craftsman husband, who specialises in naval vessels and is sneered at by Rose's snobby sister, Oyelowo comes across as too gentle and refined to convince as a problem gambler from a sketchy family.
To compound matters, the direction feels persistently flat. Chapman is unable to make the more flamboyant touches – such as the fusions of reality and fantasy, often dreamt up by Peter – fly, and it's shot without much energy or style. And, with the scenes set in London seeming especially cheap and stagey, ultimately you're left with the impression that, if the filmmakers have splurged on the top-drawer ensemble, they've almost certainly scrimped on just about everything else.
Available to watch in cinemas from Fri 18 Dec.