Ava DuVernay’s take on the YA classic is morally resolute but folds under the weight of its own source material.
Madeleine L’Engle’s sci-fi classic “A Wrinkle in Time,” wasn’t on my bookshelf as a kid—but I wish it had been. L’Engle’s imaginative vision has a reputation within YA and sci-fi circles for its big scale science-cum-spirituality fantasy and Ava DuVernay’s adaptation catches glimpses of such wonder, hitting a pitch of emotional intensity that resonates beyond the borders of a $100 million dollar Disney adaptation. But the script (by Frozen’s Jennifer Lee and Bridge to Terabithia’s Jeff Stockwell) folds under the weight of its notoriously unfilmable source material, dulling the clarity of its vision, and reducing the film to a handful of discombobulated moments.
The film follows Meg Murray (Storm Reid) and her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), as they travel through the galaxy in search of their father (Chris Pine), who has been missing for four years. Joined by Meg’s classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), our young heroes are shepherded through the stars by a trio of bewigged celestial warriors, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who are determined to reunite the Murray family. Turns out Mr. Murray got himself lost in space while goofing off with the same “space/time folding” technology Sam Neil invented in Event Horizon and now finds himself at the mercy of a pissed-off oil spill called the It (David Oyelowo). Hot tip: bending the universe back onto itself to fast-travel the galaxy rarely seems to work out.
DuVernay’s previous feature film was the gut-punch Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma, and there can be no doubt that Wrinkle in Time was made from a similar place of ambition, empathy, and fight. There are individual parts that work rather well: the way Charles Wallace tenderly runs his tiny hand across Mrs. Which’s deity-sized cheek; the compelling chemistry between Chris Pine and Gugu Mbantha-Raw (as Mrs. Murray); the boldness and vibrancy of the Mrs. Ws’ ever-changing costumes. The scene where Mrs. Which comforts Meg after their arrival on the planet of the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) is one of the film’s most effective moments. Whereas Charles Wallace and Calvin are able to dimension-hop with ease, the weight of Meg’s sadness and insecurity make it difficult for her to move through the universe. Coming down to her level, Mrs. Which tells Meg to remember her place in things, to think about all the happy accidents that led to her being just the way she is. That incredible things can happen when self-loathing gives way to self-worth is a powerful message for young girls. Especially for young girls of color like Meg.
Wrinkle in Time has much love in its heart, in execution, the film’s beat-to-beat narrative is a bit of a mess, particularly in the third act which is oddly devoid of suspense and finds its resolution all too quickly. The film often feels like it’s tripping over its own plot, lurching from one talking-head set piece to the next: characters go missing and return without explanation; introductions are rushed, and its more fantastic elements are treated so vaguely that none of the stakes really hold any weight. Because the film is so overwhelmingly shot with close-ups, scenes never really get to breathe long enough for emotional moments to land properly.
It’s frustrating when people call a film a “kids movie” to mean your kid’s too dumb to care that this movie has flaws. I don’t think children are stupid. Kids can be moved by scores, dazzled by set-pieces, and swept up in the narrative just like the rest of us. And it’s bonkers insulting when we treat them as less deserving of well-crafted content.
But there is an important distinction between the pejorative “kids movie,” and “a movie made for kids.” A Wrinkle in Time feels very “young” to me, and I mean that as a compliment; it was, on its own terms, definitely made to speak to kids. And, to my delight, the film never condescendingly slips into the cynicism and pandering that afflicts so much kid-geared cinema these days. I’m a big fan of films like Hook, Time Bandits, and Return to Oz that wear their ambition and weirdness on their sleeve. Filmmakers who don’t play it safe deserve our respect (especially when they’re making films for kids), and Wrinkle in Time should certainly be praised for taking well-intentioned chances and being strange as all hell. For that, even the battering-ram emotional exposition can be forgiven.
When I think about the history of emerging director big-budget critical stumbles, I hope that DuVernay will emerge as employable and intact as her male peers. Because for all its clumsiness, the mere miracle that Wrinkle in Time exists should never be forgotten.