By Elias Savada.
If I were a 12-year-old girl (particularly one of color), I probably would be anxiously awaiting, with all my BFFs, the arrival of A Wrinkle in Time, the transformative adaptation (as opposed to the dismal 2003 television version, also brought to you by Disney) of the beloved, best-selling children’s book by Madeleine L’Engle. Coincidentally, the young adult fantasy novel was first published when I was that age. Sadly, it was not required reading in my grade school, even after winning the Newbery Medal and a slew of other awards in 1963. The hype of the movie is definitely slanted toward those of middle school age vs. the entire family, despite the older stars that populate this planetary journey.
I might have looked more approvingly at the new film, a love letter for young people directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th, and 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, still my favorite of her films) had I embraced the book in my youth – or anytime in the ensuing half century. The movie, as scripted by Jennifer Lee (who made Disney and a ton of adoring fans very happy with the coming-of-age cartoon Frozen, an inspired retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen), taking over from Jeff Stockwell (another veteran of the mouse club with a shared credit on the meh Bridge to Terabithia), tries mightily to tackle one of those hard to visualize adventure tales, spiced up with an ambitious and empowering interpretation of multicultural family life. It doesn’t quite hit its mark.
While catering to the world’s youngsters – particularly those age 8 to 14 – the film’s generally bright and beautiful look (particularly as embodied in the over-the-top costumes, wigs, makeup, and jewelry of the three immortal spirits who take the kids on this magic cabbage ride) is overshadowed by some cheesy effects (attributed to at least eight visual effects companies) and a script that compresses the book’s challenging trip across time and space into a stream of choppy scenes. The lack of cutting edge computer-generated images (best described as whimsically dull) in a film carrying this large of a budget is mystifying. Character development, something that the director has covered so well in her previous films, suffers. I was also annoyed by incessant close-ups that filled the IMAX screen, and the pop tunes that were profusely sprinkled about the soundtrack. At least the principals didn’t break out into song and dance a la Grade School Musical.
The nuclear family at the film’s core come off as the film’s most genuine personalities. Thirteen-year-old math-science geek Meg Murry (a spunky, glorious Storm Reid) is having issues at school, brought about by lingering emotional issues surrounding the disappearance of her kind-hearted dad (Chris Pine), a quantum physicist, four years earlier, just after he announced he was tinkering with a theoretical method for moving about the universe – and without a self-driving Uber vehicle! Mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in an underwritten role), also a scientist, tries to keep her family out of trouble, especially Meg’s precocious, brainy, 6-year-old brother, Charles Wallace (an often domineering Deric McCabe, who is especially effective late in the film). Before the siblings’ journey begins, introductions to three immortal tour guides are made. The trio of Mrses named Which, Whatsit, and Who (insert Abbott and Costello joke here) are personified by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, respectively. They offer glitz, glamor, and adult (sort of) supervision to the Murry children and Calvin O’Keefe (a pretty but weak Levi Miller), a doting friend of Meg’s who joins the search-and-rescue excursion. Dad’s out there somewhere waiting for them.
Regarding the three weird celestial beings, Kaling talks in quotes (Shakespeare, Lin-Manuel Miranda, OutKast, etc.), Witherspoon is freakishly pushy, and the (literally) larger-than-life Winfrey plays her character with a god-like reverence, just like she seems in real life.
The six travelers hop from Uriel, a lovely, pastoral planet (this part of the film was shot on planet Earth in a remote, transcendent place called New Zealand), to another where Zach Galifiankis makes a cameo as an astral seer. On Camazotz, a bleak, dark orb, Michael Peña appears briefly as the gofer for The It, the terrifying evil inside us that the Murry family must battle. This oddly imagined metaphysical entity is voiced by David Oyelowo, a DuVerney regular, who also happens to be starring in Gringo, a rough, dark comedy which opened in the U.S. opposite Wrinkle.
Following on the heels of smash hit Black Panther (yup, also Disney), with its heavy participation by African American talent in front of and behind the camera, the times are finally a-changin’, and it does appear, for some of the film-going spectrum, that Black Is the New White. DuVernay is the first black woman to direct a $100-million live action feature. What took so long?
As fantasy fare I suspect that any sequels (L’Engle wrote four other books dealing with the Murry family) would depend on the film’s international box office. If it follows the pattern set by 2007’s The Golden Compass (based on Philip Pullman’s acclaimed fantasy adventure Northern Lights, the first volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy), chances are slim if the audiences don’t show up.
As a vehicle for self-worth and multiracial empowerment, A Wrinkle in Time scores points, but as a Disneyland ride it slides off the rails into a messy imitation of family fare.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).