'A Wrinkle in Time' Movie Is a Strange, Disappointing Mess
Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time has always been a favorite with preteens with its enchanting elements: The Dark, The Light, The Chosen One, The Mystic and of course, magic.
While the extravaganza film adaptation has magic in it, it most certainly is not magical. When the 2003 TV adaptation of the book (starring Katie Stuart and Alfre Woodard) came out, the then-85- year-old L’Engle (who has since passed) said bluntly, “I expected it to be bad and it is.” She wouldn’t be any more pleased with the messy blockbuster-hopeful hitting theaters March 9.
Disney did everything right in terms of putting together a dream team. It’s directed by Ava Duvernay— the first African American woman to direct a movie with a $100 million budget—and stars a diverse and able cast including the omnipotent Oprah Winfrey and megastar Chris Pine. But something went wrong.
The plot first: Meg Murray (Storm Reid) and her adopted younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) are outcasts at school because they’re “eggheads.” Children to a physicist father, Alex (Chris Pine), and scientist mother, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), even the teachers openly say mean things about them! The family lives in Compton (a notoriously dangerous Los Angeles suburb in the process of gentrification) and seems quite happy. That is, aside from the bullying by their classmates. Meg and Charles Wallace have lots of love at home courtesy of their perfect parents. But when Alex’s experiments with time-and-space travel go awry and strand him in another world, everything is torn apart.
The story truly starts four years after Dad’s disappearance. It hits the ground running when Charles Wallace meets three cosmic fairy godmothers: Spaced-out Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), quote-happy Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and wise, serene Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). Bedazzled and decked out in far-out makeup and costumes, the three Mrs. W’s fairysplain everything that’s happened, happening, and will happen, taking away the wonder of discovery and smashing the filmmakers adage “show, don’t tell” to smithereens.
Charles Wallace introduces his new pals to his sister, telling her that they know where their father is, and off they go—along with Meg’s crush Calvin (Levi Miller)—into the wild blue yonder. The trio is transported to other planets by using tesseracts (wrinkles in the space-time continuum) and needless to say, they meet an odd array of characters along the way.
At first, the otherworldly areas are beautiful and fun. Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) lives in the world between Light and Dark, and his few minutes onscreen are among the best. As the children enter the darker worlds, the Mrs. make them go at it alone. But at least they arm them with special “gifts” of advice. Regardless, things plummet downhill quickly once the fairies are out of the picture. After a terrifying run through an evil enchanted forest, they find themselves on the planet of Camazotz, where the citizens are so strictly controlled they are like robots crossed with Stepford Wives. Their creepy commander, The Man with Red Eyes (Michael Pena), is a pawn and procurer for a mysterious being called IT, who’s clearly a creation in homage to George Orwell’s Big Brother. But this most dangerous planet of all is, of course, where Meg and Charles Wallace’s dad is being held prisoner.
Not one of the worlds feels organic. I understand they need to be unearthly but they needn’t be so plastic. They look too much like green-screen paint-by-numbers constructs and don’t evoke any emotion or connection.
On top of that, Calvin is a bland character who’s there for no other reason, it seems, than to tell Meg that her natural hair is cool. Towards the end of the film he disappears without anyone mentioning it, then reappears for the wrap-up as if nothing had happened.
That’s one of my main beefs about A Wrinkle in Time—things are either over-explained with all the passion of a PowerPoint presentation or they just go “presto!” with no enlightenment whatsoever. The script is either extremely bad or it was being rewritten during filming. It took two people to write this catastrophe: Jennifer Lee, whose previous credits include Wreck-It-Ralph and Frozen, and Jeff Stockwell, who wrote Bridge to Terabithia and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Solid stuff from both, so one can only guess as to what happened here. Some might say it’s the source material itself, which is largely believed to be impossible to adapt.
Ramin Djawadi’s music score is overwrought, screaming the emotions we’re supposed to be feeling, while the choice of pop songs is odd at best (with the exception of Sade’s This Time which was written specifically for the movie) and clichéd at worst. The cinematography is OK but not up to DP Tobias A. Schliessler’s usual standard (he shot Dreamgirls and Beauty and the Beast).
Having said all that, the messages, heavy-handed though they may be, are still good ones for kids. One of the gifts given to Meg is her own “flaws” and she learns how to turn what most people think are negatives into positives. Reid is up to the task and it’s her performance that’s the glue to this otherwise chaotic hero’s journey. Diverse casting is not only expected, but it feels perfectly natural here (Meg is biracial; Mrs. Who is Indian-American; and Red is Mexican-American) and isn’t mentioned in any particular way. In L’Engle’s novel, Mrs. Who quoted Shakespeare, Dante and Jesus…the new Who cribs from Rumi, Outkast and Lin-Manuel Miranda and it feels smart and contemporary.
A Wrinkle in Time adheres to the surefire preteen attention-getting “ugly duckling into swan” model, adds an empowering quest in which a child gets to save a parent, and reminds us all that if we just believe hard enough, great things will happen.
Regardless of the reviews, kids and teens will want to see A Wrinkle in Time. So, go ahead and let them. There’s nothing objectionable here (unless you’re a jaded film critic). With its empowering themes and able cast, it’s worth a look… but not a second look.