A Wrinkle in Time disappoints across multiple dimensions, with L’Engle’s literary achievement and the upward trajectory of director Ava DuVernay suffering the hardest blows.
It took more than five decades for A Wrinkle in Time to make it to the silver screen. Madeline L’Engle’s novel may be slender, but, to channel Mrs. Who with a quote from Whitman, it contains multitudes. Ava DuVernay’s misbegotten film version of L’Engle’s beloved, brainy tale is big, yet much smaller than the novel, and the cold passion of the book has been replaced with platitudes. If L’Engle wrote with the stern voice of a classically educated librarian, this adaptation feels like the product of a B-minus student’s exuberance and tenuous grasp of the teachings of Kahil Gibran and Rumi.
The film more or less hews to L’Engle’s narrative blueprint, with some notable omissions. Meg Murry (the excellent Storm Reid) is a stubborn, awkward, fiercely intelligent misfit; Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, almost too adorable) is her impossibly brilliant and telepathic younger brother; and Calvin (teen-heartthrob sapling Levi Miller), a popular classmate with a troubled domestic life, is an outsider looking for home. Meg and Charles Wallace’s parents are heterodox scientists at work on faster-than-light travel. Their experiments lead to father Alex (a nicely bearded Chris Pine) disappearing. When the story begins, he has been missing for four years. With help from a trio of astral beings – the flighty Mrs. Whatsit (a sharp-edged Reese Witherspoon), the bookish Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling, all smiles, all the time), and the saintly Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, serving us full OPRAH) – Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace traverse the universe on a mission to find and rescue Mr. Murry.
A Wrinkle in Time disappoints across multiple dimensions, with L’Engle’s literary achievement and the upward trajectory of director Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) suffering the hardest blows. Maybe this explains why Disney buried it next to the release of Black Panther, a markedly superior picture, which DuVernay was originally set to helm. This final, syrupy brew has to be poured onto DuVernay’s feet, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. Screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell boil down a story of love and loss, individualism in the face of insistent conformity and the supremacy of intellect into the worst kind of highfalutin, self-help treacle. Visually, A Wrinkle in Time mimics George Lucas’ fondness for green-screens at all costs, resulting in many a flat CGI vista and scenes full of images as artificial and awkward as the dialogue.
There are a few bright moments, glimmers of a better version of this movie. When DuVernay is on terra firma, her sun-dappled tight shots are stunning. The camera sometimes looks up, with a naturalistic glow that nods at Terrence Malick. Later in the film, Meg strides atop ink-drawn architectural sketches, to reach a spectral prison. Sade’s first new song in seven years, a gorgeous tune called “Flower of the Universe,” plays in the background. The cell is adorned with warm panels of pink and orange. The emotional payoff is just as devastating as Meg’s surroundings and Sade’s unearthly hymn. The unassuming, universal diversity of the cast should pass without a remark; we aren’t there yet, so the many colors portrayed onscreen deserve kudos.
A Wrinkle in Time was, in L’Engle’s words, once “a book that almost never got published.” She famously shopped it around with little luck. “Nobody knew quite what it was or who it was for. And the general feeling was that it was much too hard for children.” DuVernay has, in turn, capitulated to those first complaints and simplified the story for tots. She hasn’t digested, or has actively ignored, the rest of L’Engle’s testimony: “The problem is, it’s not too hard for kids. It’s too difficult for grown-ups.” Five decades later, a bright and promising director proves an author’s point in a most unfortunate way.