I take no pleasure in saying this ...
But Ava DuVernay’s big-budget adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book “A Wrinkle in Time” is a clumsy, clunky mess and one of the most disappointing movies of this still-young year.
When it was announced in 2016 that the Oscar-nominated director of “Selma” and “13th” was taking charge of the Disney project, it was a cause for celebration. But like so many indie directors past, DuVernay stumbles in her leap into blockbuster filmmaking. Her style remains intact, but it gels awkwardly against the demands of mainstream studio storytelling.
What we’re left with is something neither here nor there: a film too weird to please audiences looking for down-the-middle family entertainment but not weird enough to please people looking for something weird.
The film’s message of female empowerment is undeniable, but that doesn’t make it a good movie.
Will kids like it? No idea. I think tweens might enjoy the film, as it’s so squarely aimed at them. But I wonder if younger children will be just as bored as I was.
Fans of the book, at least, should be pleased that the film doesn’t change the story all that much. “A Wrinkle in Time” tinkers with the details of L’Engle’s 1962 novel, but the broad strokes remain the same:
An angry teen named Meg (Storm Reid) learns that her missing astrophysicist father (Chris Pine) is trapped on a planet of pure evil. Along with her prodigy of a younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her schoolyard crush, Calvin (Levi Miller), Meg travels through a wrinkle in space-time to rescue her father from a monster before he’s lost forever.
The three children are guided by a trio of celestial beings: Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling). On their journey, they meet a sassy seer (Zach Galifianakis) and a red-eyed puppet (Michael Peña). When they need to get somewhere fast, Reese Witherspoon turns into a flying cabbage.
The visuals in “Wrinkle” are a peculiar mix of dazzling and dumb:
Meg floating through the glittery void between spaces billions of light-years apart? Dazzling.
Oprah turning into a 30-foot-tall giant for a quarter of the film? Dumb.
While the effects have their merits, the characterizations, dialogue and storytelling are more uniformly inept.
It would be unfair to call the film derivative, because the reason the film feels so familiar is that so many other books, movies and TV shows have cribbed elements from L’Engle’s book over the past five decades. Nonetheless, “A Wrinkle in Time” still has the misfortune of feeling like it’s stealing from the very things that stole from it.
But even setting aside the story’s inherent lack of freshness, “Wrinkle” can’t seem to find anything interesting to do with itself as it winds down its sole compelling thread of Meg trying to find her father.
L’Engle wrote the novel as a Christian allegory, a tale of lightness overcoming the dark. DuVernay (working from a script by “Frozen” director Jennifer Lee) translates the good vs. evil narrative into something markedly more muddled, a melting pot of new-agey beliefs.
The three Mrs. W’s explain to Meg that they’re looking for warriors — pure of spirit and stout of heart. And also immune to the appeals of conformity. And also, like, really, really smart ... and, one more thing: full of love, just teeming with the stuff.
Because, as everyone knows, when you’re battling a computer-animated goo monster of pitiless evil, love is all you need.
Despite its good intentions and enthusiastic (if typically stilted) performances, “Wrinkle” comes to little more than a bloated mash of competing tones and ideas:
Science vs. magic. Feeble comedy vs. lackluster drama. Personal filmmaking vs. please-everyone blockbuster-ing.
In the end, nobody wins.