by Ken Bakely
Somewhere in the second half of Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, our motley crew of protagonists – consisting of the brilliant Meg Murry (Storm Reid); her prodigy of a younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe); and her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) – are navigating a dangerous realm, deep into the far reaches of the universe. In a quest to find Meg and Charles Wallace’s long-missing scientist father, Alex (Chris Pine), they’ve discovered his signature concept: teleportation beyond Earth via mentally willed rifts in space and time. They find themselves in a world that manifests evil through deceptive temptation. In an early trial, they wander onto what appears to be a suburban cul-de-sac. The blue sky is jutted with puffy white clouds. Nameless children stand on the driveways of their identical houses, bouncing identical red balls at identical rhythms. The symmetry and cleanliness of the scene makes it purposefully off-putting, as the conceptual beauty of the environment is overridden by a distinct lack of recognizable human inclination.
This blazing adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s famed novel suffers from similar aesthetic problems to that nightmarish creation. It clutters itself with manically edited bursts of sensory overload, and banks its message with the kind of force that undershoots the receptiveness of its target audience. DuVernay’s comparatively clear-headed direction, and the efforts of a well-rounded cast, are left in the cold by a passive script and clunky CGI. There’s a constant juxtaposition between fascinating concepts and lackluster execution. Vortexes of enchanted flowers or characters turning into giant, flying leaves have never looked so pedestrian. The three magical beings who set Meg and company on their quest – the quote-reciting Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), the awkward Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and the maternal Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) – are warm and well-portrayed. But their purpose is overaffirmed through shoehorned banter, and they’re less of a guiding spiritual presence and more of a narrative fact that comes and goes. Dressed in glam rock costumes and adorned with canisters of vivid makeup, they exist with a textual literalism that befalls their non-physical nature.
Yet A Wrinkle in Time frequently works elsewhere, and it’s no coincidence that the movie is most effective when it can focus on its human foundations. Whether it’s the confident performances of the three child actors, the quiet flashback scenes that establish the emotional hole left in the Murry household by Alex’s disappearance, or the twisting and turning dynamics that come from the perils of the fantastical journey, there’s a moving simplicity to elements which almost gets swallowed up by the chaotic realization of everything else. Even soft touches to early peripheries, like the choice to name the middle school the kids attend after James Baldwin, contain a tactile weathering that is absent from the more grandiose – and sterile – proceedings. (Additionally, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is solid in her few scenes as Charles Wallace and Meg’s mother).
DuVernay brings the energy missing from the script’s cyclical idea of empowerment. She takes the glossy platitudes and utilizes a clever protagonist who actually embodies them. This movie’s Meg is a person of color, tested with the idea that she must alter her appearance or her reality to fit in, and overcomes that pressure to find the truths that will allow her to conquer the obstacles in her way. When A Wrinkle in Time moves past its fizzy cotton-candy visuals, and the missteps of a self-conscious charm offensive (one quirky burst of chatter from Mrs. Who has the odious accomplishment of possibly finding the first occasion where it doesn’t make sense to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda), it’s all good, warm, and positive. Under the Disney-fied, franchising fury, there is an imaginative adventure fighting to get out. But it’s trapped under a tween-targeted TED Talk that’s also capable of inducing eye strain. We’re in a better world where movies like this exist, as opposed to one where they don’t, but the greatest children’s entertainment, with even the most mass-marketed backdrop, avoids such frequent hits of unfeeling simplicity.