Madeleine L'Engle’s 1962 novel, A Wrinkle in Time, is a beloved “science fantasy” that’s often described as impossible to adapt for the screen. There was a 2003 television movie that attempted to bring the author’s rich imagination to life, and now director Ava DuVernay tries her hand at interpretation, armed with a substantial budget and a bit of star power.
DuVernay isn’t a seasoned filmmaker, previously working on smaller pictures such as Selma, and her inexperience riding the bucking bronco of CGI is evident from the first frame. While the helmer struggles to transform the complex material into a fresh Disney franchise, she often comes up short, finding the feature too stiff and underdeveloped to connect as an awe-inspiring tribute to the power of science and love.
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Reese Witherspooon turns out to be a giant leaf of flying lettuce.
And nobody in A Wrinkle in Time
seems to be floored by any of this.
Meg (Storm Reid) is a troubled teenager who once connected tightly to her astrophysicist father, Alex (Chris Pine). Driven to explore the wonders of the mind, which is a key to opening up alternate dimensions, Alex disappears, leaving his family, including wife Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and youngest son, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), without any idea where he could be.
Bullied and brilliant, Meg feels like an outsider, but her genius is soon put to use when supernatural beings Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Who (Mindy Kaling), and Which (Oprah Winfrey) arrive, offering support for a rescue mission to retrieve Alex.
Joined by neighbor Calvin (Levi Miller), Meg and Charles Wallace use a tesseract to fold space and time, entering a magical realm threatened by a black entity known as the IT. Screwing up the courage to find her father and take on the IT, Meg learns to trust her spirit and intelligence, embarking on a dimension-hopping journey.
A Wrinkle in Time is dependent on a strong set-up, as the world Meg is about to enter is just as complex as the one she temporarily leaves behind.
Her father, a loving man who developed her interest in science, is also an obsessive type who made a space-bending breakthrough. When Alex disappears, Meg is shattered, but she also faces issues at school, bullied about the abandonment, and embarrassed by Charles Wallace’s pure heart and support.
The screenplay (by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell) spends time on introductions, but it’s difficult to zero in on these personalities as there’s so much narrative ground to cover before the fantastic trip begins.
A Wrinkle in Time feels short-sheeted during the first act. Calvin is dropped into the action without warning, already head over heels in love with Meg. The entire business with Whatsit and Who, semi-established as quirky neighbors, is an ill-defined problem exacerbated by the arrival of Who, materializing as a 30-foot-tall being. And nobody seems to be floored by any of this.
Character connections are mechanical, not organic. Kate’s participation in the tale is weirdly marginalized, while Meg’s school experience is pure cartoon—the shy girl facing the cliché Mean Girls.
The movie is meant to lift off the ground once the “tessering” begins, but DuVernay sweats to position details of the dimensional lands, including an interaction with sentient flowers and the reveal of Whatsit’s true form—a giant flying lettuce leaf.
During the trek, Meg learns more about her purpose from The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, doing light shtick), discovers the lure of conformity inside a menacing replication of suburbia, and is pulled close to evil by Red (Michael Pena), an agent of the IT with designs on Charles Wallace. A Wrinkle in Time often plays like a greatest hits version of L'Engle’s novel, taking moments to sample book highlights, not savor them.
DuVernay makes strange creative choices throughout, with her odd frame compositions and abuse of close-ups. There’s pop music to support some of the set-pieces, giving the endeavor a television movie feel.
Indeed, A Wrinkle in Time often feels like an ABC pilot, setting up ideas to pay off in sequels, while the thin relationships seem suited for weekly dramatic strengthening. There should be a wow factor with these trips to other dimensions, and a lasting message of empowerment and devotion, but it’s all rendered hopelessly flat by DuVernay, who bit off more than she could chew.