Dazzling visuals and committed performances from its child stars don’t stop “A Wrinkle in Time” from unfolding a lackluster story. Director Ava DuVernay invites us on an ethereal journey across space time that consists of constant layovers on poorly-navigated planets. “A Wrinkle in Time” shows audiences the laws of physics can be broken, but that the requirements for good cinematic entertainment are as rigid as ever.
None of these faults have to do with how this “A Wrinkle in Time” strays from its source material. Released in 1962, “A Wrinkle in Time” was a bestseller, remaining a cherished favorite among adults and children for over 50 years. The story was adapted into a play, an opera, a graphic novel, and even a poorly-received TV movie in 2003. But DuVernay’s 2018 version is the first time Meg Murry and Charles Wallace have graced the silver screen in a major release.
Fans of the book will notice that twin brothers Sandy and Dennys are absent, that Mrs. Which is a home intruder and not the Murry’s next-door-neighbor, and that plot devices have been bent and remolded to better fit the cinematic medium. What DuVernay and writers Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell leave out from the book isn’t missed in the movie.
It’s what the movie gives us instead that is much more troublesome.
We follow Meg (Storm Reid), a thoughtful young girl who can ace an AP Physics problem but can’t find the solution to her poor behavior. She’s emotionally stunted after her scientist father Mr. Murry (Chris Pine) disappeared while researching how to travel vast distances across the stars. Meg’s mom Mrs. Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her gifted younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) are also struggling, but it’s Meg who places Mr. Murry at the center of her universe, and is so unable to move on without him.
Questions on how Meg’s life will improve are suddenly answered by Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. Played by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey, respectively, the lavish ladies reveal themselves to be otherworldly creatures and that Mr. Murry is still alive, but trapped in by a brooding, dark force in the far reaches of the universe. Draped in vibrant, colorful gowns with hair and makeup that glistens from every angle, the misses invite Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin (Levi Miller), a classmate of Meg’s, to travel with them to find Mr. Murry.
The joy we get from this rescue mission is minimal, as DuVernay doesn’t spend the necessary time making each of these places feel wholly unique and new. At no point are Meg, Charles Wallace and crew ever able to look around for an extended period of time, they’re always spring from one place and conflict to the next without taking the time to breathe.
It doesn’t help that DuVernay heavily relies on closeup shots throughout the movie. Few seconds go by where someone’s entire face isn’t taking up half the screen. These shots are a nuisance at first, but become burdenesome when they impact the plot and dramatic effect later on. In one scene, where Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin are on a beach, Meg desperately pleads with Charles to hold her hand, a symbolic gesture of unity throughout the film. But the emotion is lost in the sequence since we can’t actually see Meg extending her hand, since the camera is focused only on her head.
As we become intimately acquainted with each character’s face, “A Wrinkle in Time’s” emotional devices fail to give meaningful insight into their hearts. We’re told that a dark force attacking earth is what causes people to harbor negative feelings like jealously and resentment. The film attempts to portray this in a humanistic montage sequence, where minor characters are grappling with dark emotions, like teachers jealous over another colleague’s promotion, or one of Meg’s bullies who battles with her body image.
It’s a noble attempt to illustrate how we’re all part of this universe and the necessity for one to be good to one another. But the fact that this dark force is supposedly responsible for every bad mood and misplaced insult we’ve ever experienced directly contradicts the “be great” message at the heart of the film. How can we possibly see each other’s humanity if we aren’t able to take responsibility for our own poor choices and emotional mistakes?
Thankfully, the poorly-conceived script didn’t hamper the cast from putting their best foot forward and reaching for the stars. Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey are majestic as the mystical misses, with Reese Witherspoon serving up enough intergalactic sass that you’d think her character was an Elle Woods incarnate from a different dimension. Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw channel some of the more heartfelt moments in the film, two scientists united by love with a palpable devotion to their children.
But it’s Storm Reid and Deric McCabe who dazzle most as Meg and Charles Wallace. Reid is fierce but has the emotional nuance to make Meg and her anxieties believable. And Wallace conveys the outspoken eccentricity of Wallace with humor and class, a difficult role for an actor of any age, but one that Reid delivers with poise and vigor.
“A Wrinkle in Time” had its heart in the right place, and so did DuVernay when she was tasked with transporting us to this new cinematic universe. But this voyage was poorly-charted, a movie constantly pushing for a new frontier when it should have laid its anchor down much sooner.