‘A Wrinkle In Time’ Review: A Children’s Classic Doesn’t Live Up To Its Source Material
The almighty alien beings that guide the human heroes through A Wrinkle in Time are named Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who. There is no Mrs. Why, which is too bad; she might have been able to explain where this lavish adaptation of a beloved novel by some extremely gifted filmmakers went wrong. It’s honestly a little baffling how so many good choices could produce something so frustrating.
The film takes its cues from the book of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle, with a few modern updates. Troubled teenager Meg Murry (Storm Reid) has never gotten over the disappearance of her physicist father Alex (Chris Pine) four years earlier. He believed human beings could traverse infinitely vast distances using only their minds. (Google “quantum entanglements” if you want to know more.) Alex’s colleagues laughed at his theories, and then he vanished without a trace.
His family, including Meg’s gifted younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and their mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), are about to give up hope when a curious woman named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) arrives, rambling on tesseracts and the possibility that their dad is still alive somewhere out in the great beyond. Soon, Charles Wallace, Meg, and Meg’s Stage 5 Clinger Calvin (Levi Miller) are galavanting across the cosmos with Mrs. Whatsit and her two other outlandishly dressed colleagues (played by Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey).
It’s a dream setup — and a dream team of actors — for a children’s science fiction picture. But Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin’s adventure never quite comes together. The screenplay by Jeff Stockwell and Frozen’s Jennifer Lee, is largely comprised of a series of talky, disconnected set-pieces. The children arrive somewhere, the Mrs. W’s explain what’s going on, and they leave for the next CGI locale. And while these distant planets are colorful, they’re totally devoid of life; these kids literally travel from one end of the universe to the other and the only creatures they meet are a couple of sentient flowers, a mean cloud, and Zach Galifianakis in a robe.
One scene bleeds into the next with little flow or tension; the kids are told they can’t jump (or “tesser”) to a specific location and then they immediately do it anyway; characters go missing and then return without explanation. And the whole time Calvin, Charles Wallace, and Mrs. Which constantly pepper Meg with compliments, reminding her that she is talented and brilliant and beautiful. (Calvin fawns over Meg’s hair several times. Calvin, my dude, you’re making it weird.) They’re not wrong, and as a young woman of color, Reid’s Meg is a refreshingly unusual protagonist for a studio blockbuster. Still, the affirmations are so heavy and so persistent (“Love is the frequency!”) that it sometimes feels like A Wrinkle in Time is adapted from a New Age self-help book instead of a classic science-fiction novel.
A Wrinkle in Time’s cast is incredible, but there’s not much for them to do. Reese Witherspoon has a few kooky lines and then turns into a giant piece of flying lettuce. Mindy Kaling only speaks in quotations from famous authors and thinkers like Shakespeare and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Gugu Mbatha-Raw spends most of the movie back on Earth while her kids are hanging out with the Mrs. W’s; Chris Pine spends most of the movie lost among the stars (although he does have one heartbreakingly tender scene with Reid). The film instead rests on the tiny shoulders of the child actors, who are not always up to the task, although it is sort of fun when Charles Wallace gets infected with “The It,” the mysterious force infecting the universe with darkness, and an overly precocious child actor becomes the embodiment of pure evil.
A Wrinkle in Time was directed by Ava DuVernay, whose last feature was the exceptional Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma. In this case, it seems like her desire to express her ideas as directly and forcefully as possible overwhelmed every other concern. I have no doubt that this project came from a very personal place, and a desire to make a different kind of sci-fi film for children and girls, one that tells them they are powerful and special and wonderful exactly the way they are. That is a noble goal; young women absolutely deserve to be told all of that by positive, aspirational role models. They also deserve movies that deliver that message more deftly than this one.
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