Adapting A Wrinkle in Time for the movies was always going to be like stepping through a minefield. Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel is beloved by elementary and middle schoolers who read it in class, as well as their parents who read it decades before. I had a similar experience; I read the book as a child, and even read one of its sequels. But I remember nothing about the story beyond the color of Meg’s hair and an early reference to warm milk that curdled my stomach. This is an ideal way to approach Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, one that allows the viewer to appreciate the film she has created, rather than to give it meaningless points for its fidelity or to criticize otherwise worthwhile departures from the book’s plot. The film DuVernay made is peppered with tantalizing glimpses of the more mature project that could have been, but the bulk of the film is oddly cold, lacking both in wonder and feeling.
The story is anchored by Meg Murray, played by Storm Reid. We’re introduced early to her father (Chris Pine), who is working in his lab. He shows off his equipment and delights in her enchantment with it. Their family has just been graced with the adoption of a new child, a boy named Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), but Mr. Murray isn’t around long to celebrate him. Along with his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), he has been experimenting on a way to cross the universe instantaneously. For a scientist NASA-affiliated scientist, Murray is surprisingly wishy-washy when it comes to explaining science, so we never learn much about this means of traversing the universe aside from the fact that it was his wife’s work that made it possible, and that the process requires one’s mind to initiate. Murray finally manages to open a portal to unknown destinations late one night and steps into it, never to be seen again.
After this intro A Wrinkle in Time jumps ahead four years, at which point Murray’s children have had a precipitous dip in their fortunes. Meg, who was once a straight-A student and a science wiz, is now a listless teenager with mediocre scores. Reid is excellent in these scenes, pulling off a sense of the low-level depression that haunts Meg without falling into caricature. Meanwhile, Charles Wallace attends the same school and has turned into a savant. His sweaters, perfectly parted hair, and overly formal speech mark him as an academic in the making. Both children are bullied, and the introduction of that element reveals DuVernay’s first major stumble. Her film is aimed at children, but children understand bullying intimately, whether as victim or perpetrator or bystander, and the film’s conception of it doesn’t bear any relation to reality. Here a popular girl (played by Rowan Blanchard) has organized a campaign of bullying against Meg, seemly because her father disappeared years ago and because she always seems depressed. It’s a logical explanation, but bullying is more random and unexplainable than what’s presented here — this instead comes off like screenwriter Jennifer Lee transported a sappy 1980s after-school-special version into a feature film.
Meg is so mopey and detached from the world around her that she doesn’t realize Charles Wallace has struck up a friendship with a mysterious Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a celestial being in the form of a fiery-haired woman. Why she appeared isn’t quite explained, nor is her position in the universe, but she leads Charles Wallace and Meg to her elders — Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks in almost nothing but quotations from famous luminaries, and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who materializes as tall as a tree towering over everyone else (which is perhaps fitting for Oprah).
The three Mrs. have found a way to transport Meg and Charles Wallace to the place their father visited four years ago. They step through the shimmering portal (a strange connection with this year’s Annihilation) onto a planet far away and beyond our comprehension. Unfortunately, at the point when the story should finally come into its own, DuVernay and Lee seem most out of their element. There are some delightful visual concoctions, such as a floating, tittering herd of vibrant flowers (another Annihilation connection), but other images simply fall flat. Mrs. Whatsit transforms herself into some kind of asparagus/spinach monster to fly high above the new land with the children on her back in search of their father, but the creature has the unfortunate plastic sheen of bad digital effects. DuVernay does create some wonderful landscapes, including the charred innards of a cave where a seer (Zach Galifianakis) resides, but others are woefully devoid of imagination, especially the setting of the film’s ultimate battle. The score is also pockmarked with intrusive pop songs that literalize the subtext and bring it to a screeching halt (a charitable interpretation is that Disney required the use of songs — attributing their presence to DuVernay’s desires would suggest a trouble lapse of judgment).
A Wrinkle in Time’s greatest strength is Reid, who is capable of expressing great emotions without overplaying it, but her skills make it so much more apparent that DuVernay spends too much effort on lackluster effects and not enough on the emotional development of her characters. The best scene is a montage that reveals the hidden struggles and pains of minor characters, including a homeless man Meg met and the bully who torments her. Movies are about people, not wondrous creatures and tesseracts, and for a brief few moments, this film seems to get that. But as soon as the scene is over, Meg returns to her quest and the sanitized digital wonderland. Pine and Mbatha-Raw give off a pleasant sense of veracity in their scenes, which makes it such a shame that both are mostly sidelined. A few extra minutes with each of them before the fantasy elements kicked in would have done so much to help. Obviously Meg wants to find her father, but the audience needs to know him better in order to be similarly invested. In this era of bloated blockbusters, the film’s 109-minute running time should be a blessing, but instead it seems woefully restrictive.
Pre-release publicity has focused on the fact that DuVernay is the first woman of color to helm a $100 million film. It’s an important fact, and a crucial step forward for representation in Hollywood, but perhaps these effects-driven films aren’t where DuVernay is most effective. With Selma she was able to transform deified Civil Rights-era heroes into flesh and blood, giving us entrance to their passion and vigor. It’s possible that she could never have brought that vitality and emotion to A Wrinkle in Time; Disney might have always insisted on more empty visuals as spectacle. DuVernay is an artist of considerable talents, but this isn’t the film to show them off.