Last month, I stated in my review of Black Panther that black people don’t often get to direct Hollywood blockbuster extravaganzas. You know who else doesn’t have the chance to do that often? Women! (You were way ahead of me, weren’t you?) It so happens that Ava DuVernay is a hugely talented filmmaker who is both African-American and a woman, so we all must pay attention when Disney entrusts her with a ton of money to adapt A Wrinkle in Time. Between this ambitious epic’s genuine accomplishments and its injection of color into Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved fantasy novel, I really, really hate having to pronounce it a failure. Yet that’s what I must do.
Newcomer Storm Reid stars as Meg Murry, the 13-year-old daughter of physicists who’s coming up on four years after her father (Chris Pine) mysteriously vanished, having been dismissed as a crackpot for advocating a method for instantaneous interspace travel. On the anniversary, Meg and the rest of her family are surprised by new neighbor Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who shows up in their living room wearing a poofy dress made out of bedsheets and twittering about how Meg’s father’s theories were real. Meg, her adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and smitten school friend Calvin (Levi Miller) are promptly whisked off to planets unknown by Mrs. Whatsit, along with the sage-quoting Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), the team leader whose height and hair color vary as she pleases.
I read the book last summer and chalked up my issues with it to the fact that I’m not currently a 12-year-old girl. After seeing the movie, though, I found my problems with the book crystallizing. Mrs. Which constantly speaks of the children’s need to become warriors for the light against the forces of darkness, as if evil is some external entity to be defeated. The world isn’t divided into good guys and bad ones. The darkness lurks in all of us, and we attain peace by reaching some sort of accommodation with it. (It’s a Buddhist outlook, or a Jedi one, if you prefer.) Meg’s apathy and sour attitude are presented as character flaws to be solved instead of a natural response to her father’s disappearance and being bullied at school. This story seems to boil down to Meg needing to be nicer, which is perhaps a holdover from the book written in 1962, but doesn’t do much for us right now.
On a less intellectual level, the early part of this movie doesn’t work at all. Scenes have a clunkiness to them that we didn’t find in DuVernay’s Selma, and the director proves unable to manage the irruption of the supernatural into the real world. The kids embark on their journey when a tesseract materializes in Meg’s backyard, and surely it would help us relate to them if somebody stopped for a moment to wonder how her house was undulating.
Once the movie leaves Earth, it takes off. L’Engle’s book is short on visual detail about the extraterrestrial places that our heroes visit, so DuVernay and her production team are free to fill in the blanks, and they do it gloriously. The verdant world of Uriel, with its Day-Glo foliage and floating sentient flowers, makes for a genuine “whoa” moment, as does the dense forest that instantly springs up around our characters on a beach. The evil planet of Camazotz holds a creepy suburb that Tim Burton would be proud of. The imagination here is a triumph for DuVernay, cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, production designer Naomi Shohan, and costume designer Paco Delgado, who has a ball designing the Mrs.’ outlandish outfits.
Yet I can’t ignore how this movie falls down every time it stops for the humans to interact with each other. This cast has a few winners (Witherspoon gives off the right otherworldly vibe here, and Michael Peña crushes his few minutes as an extravagantly mustachioed evil spirit in a rainbow suit), but the whole drama of bringing Meg’s dad back home is muted. The kid heroes seem thrown together at random, and without the character’s preternatural intelligence, McCabe turns Charles Wallace into yet another cute Disney kid. Heaven knows we could use a film with a positive message about using love and knowledge to combat the forces of ignorance, but A Wrinkle in Time is done too clumsily to pay off. The special-effects are cool, but this is still a secular sermon disguised as a movie.
A Wrinkle in Time
Starring Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Written by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, based on Madeleine L’Engle’s novel. Rated PG.