A Wrinkle In Time
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell
Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Storm Reid, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine, Deric McCabe, Levi Miller
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG | 109 Minutes
Release Date: March 9, 2018
“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” — Tzu, Chinese
26 different publishers rejected Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time when she began shopping the book around in early 1960. The science fantasy story was seen as too complicated or “too adult” for children to comprehend, and publishers of the era believed there wasn’t an audience for books with young female leads. They were wrong. The children’s novel was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1962, and has since become a beloved classic, praised for encouraging young girls to embrace their love of speculative fiction and pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Now, 55 years later, Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, a film adaptation directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma, The Thirteenth), hopes to inspire young girls of color similarly. Known for championing diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, DuVernay is the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a production budget over $100 million. In keeping with her goal to create a more diverse representation on screen, DuVernay chose to stray from L’Engle’s description of the characters and cast actors of all ages, ethnicities, and genders to ensure the timeless story resonates with today’s audiences.
Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a gifted but stubborn middle school student who just wants to fit in. The 12-year-old daughter of two world-renowned scientists, biophysicist Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, The Cloverfield Paradox) and theoretical physicist Alex Murry (Chris Pine, Wonder Woman), Meg finds herself struggling with issues of self-worth after the mysterious disappearance of her father. Under the guidance of three celestial beings, she embarks on an epic adventure across time and space with her baby brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and a classmate crush (Levi Miller, Pan) in search of her father before darkness engulfs the universe.
A Wrinkle in Time has a lot of positive, uplifting messages about embracing your individuality. It explores the nature of darkness and light, good versus evil and, like the equally timeless works of Huey Lewis and the News, the power of love. Unfortunately, for all of DuVernay’s attempts to make the story resonate with a wide audience, there’s little context given to understand L’Engle’s imaginative world and its characters. Every great fantasy story, whether it’s The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or the Harry Potter series, establishes rules and truths for the audience so they can follow the characters on their journey. Here, the ability to suspend disbelief isn’t as easy because those parameters aren’t as clearly defined.
Imagine watching The Empire Strikes Back and seeing a little green creature using his mind to lift a spaceship out of a swamp, without previously detailing the concept of the Force or the backstory of the Jedi Knights. Imagine reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince without having read the five books before it that establish J.K. Rowling’s magical world and its characters. That’s what it feels like to watch A Wrinkle in Time. I’m all for exploring weird, fantastical realms where anything is possible, but I need some context. I have no clue how “tessering,” the ability to move through time and space using your mind, works in this movie. You just focus really hard and magically beam yourself across dimensions. According to Meg’s dad, you’ve got to find the right frequency, and the frequency is love, or something.
Similarly, I don’t fully comprehend who Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) are. The three Mrs.’s show up, much like Gandalf, Dumbledore, or Obi-Wan Kenobi, to mentor our young heroes and guide them on their journey, but they’re wildly inconsistent and underdeveloped. Where did they come from? What are they? They appear to be celestial beings with the weirdest subset of special powers I’ve ever seen. Oprah appears as a towering, Galactus-esque giant while Reese Witherspoon turns into a horrific FernGully monster that’s part-cabbage, part-magic carpet, and Mindy Kaling seems to be a personification of Goodreads.com, doling out wisdom in the form of inspirational quotes from Buddha, Shakespeare, Outkast, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The villain of the piece is, you guessed it, Darkness™. More specifically, the planet Camazotz, where a disembodied brain known only as The IT™ uses its Evil Energy™ to extinguish the light in the universe with fear, hatred, and negativity. Oh, and it’s voiced by David Oyelowo (Selma, Star Wars Rebels). The IT™, not to be confused with Pennywise the Dancing Clown, possesses Charles Wallace and turns the sweater vest-wearing child genius into Damien from The Omen, forcing Meg to overcome her insecurities and embrace her faults to free him from the space-brain’s malevolent influence, or something. Did I mention Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover series) is in this movie? He shows up for a few minutes, does a yoga pose, then peaces out. Cool.
And then there are the special effects, which simply don’t work. Every scene set on a distant alien planet or in some ethereal plane between worlds feels phony. The line between what is live-action and what is computer-generated isn’t blurred at all; the seams are showing. And because nothing is grounded in reality, the visuals give the film a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? vibe, where human beings interact with cartoon elements. There are moments, however, where the pixels take a backseat to production design, and DuVernay and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (2017’s Beauty and the Beast) create some beautiful images that evoke Alejandro Jodorowsky’s brand of surrealist cinema, specifically 1973’s Holy Mountain.
Despite the underwritten script, uneven pacing, and lackluster special effects, there are a few things that work in DuVernay’s film, namely the performances. Newcomer Storm Reid is fantastic and more than capable of carrying a major franchise, while Pine and Mbatha-Raw do a lot with very little. Oprah, Witherspoon, and Kaling are likable in their limited roles, when they’re not transforming into Lovecraftian horrors, that is. The only bothersome performance in the whole movie comes from 9-year-old Deric McCabe, who appears to be channeling Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace‘s Jake Lloyd in his performance as the insufferable Charles Wallace.
Admittedly, I am not the target audience for this movie. Does it matter if a 33-year-old white guy is underwhelmed by a kids movie? No, not really. I’m sure 9-year-old children of every gender and ethnicity will have their imaginations set on fire by A Wrinkle in Time the way my generation was dazzled by films like The NeverEnding Story, The Dark Crystal, and The Princess Bride, and, ultimately, that’s what matters. I won’t discourage anyone from seeing this movie, but I can’t help but be disappointed by the finished product. Given a better script that fleshes out the world and its characters, A Wrinkle in Time could have been the adaptation fans of L’Engle’s beloved series have been hoping for, but as it stands, it feels more like this year’s The Golden Compass.
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