I find the hopes many had of seeing success come out of making a film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time interesting. That no doubt comes from my perspective as one who enjoys seeing the support of diversity and inclusivity in mainstream features. In a time where films are rarely lauded for having a big budget and the same actors and directors are constantly given second or third chances to move past their previous failures, A Wrinkle in Time looked to be something different. Coming off of two Oscar-nominated films, director Ava DuVernay shows she’s just as capable of making a big fantasy adventure. However, given the nature of what happens when supposedly “unfilmable’ books are adapted for the screen, it means this is a film that has to do a lot of swinging for the fences.
I wish I could say taking that sort of chance worked out, but A Wrinkle in Time has issues that start with a meandering story. DuVernay and the script by Jennifer Lee, a successful veteran of the animation world, making her live-action filmmaking debut, seem so focused on wanting to alert the audience members that they are special, and should relish the opportunity to use their intelligence for good, that the film misses out on continual coherence. It’s not that the story doesn’t follow a linear path of a fantasy adventure to at least show a journey and an arc for the main character, but I wouldn’t say the ideas add up in a way that feels earned.
The film stars Storm Reid as Meg Murry, a teenager who is depressed due to the disappearance of her astrophysicist father (Chris Pine). When her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) randomly introduces Meg to strange characters Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, fittingly cast as a giant, all-knowing sage-wisdom speaker), it leads to a journey to other dimensions. The idea is that Meg’s father stumbled upon a way to travel across the universe through wrinkles…in time, so Meg, Charles Wallace and their new friend Calvin (Levi Miller), who is also tagging along for no apparent reason, go on a mission to find him.
At a glance, A Wrinkle in Time has a plot structure that has been done plenty of times before. That’s not an issue here, as part of the joy should come from seeing a character that looks like Reid as the hero, in the midst of standard adventure storytelling. The problems arise in how the film does a lot of stopping and starting for the sake of reminding Meg that she’s super special and can do anything if she puts her mind to it, while not having the film do enough to ground her into any of the magical worlds she visits. It’s the kind of movie where having the characters acknowledge the sense of wonder is necessary to justify the randomness of movie magic constantly thrown at the audience. Without much of a foundation for how these other dimensional worlds operate, it’s up to the script to make the characters in it find a certain rhythm that unfortunately rarely hits the right tempo.
DuVernay doesn’t feel out of her depth here though. The film was famously given a $100-million budget, a first for a live-action film for a woman of color to direct, and while it feels like this amount of money was pushed to the limits to realize some of the visual effects, there is enough to admire in the spectacle on display. That said, there is also something of awkwardness to making this film palatable for all audiences. Not to delve too far into where things are headed, but there is an evil that exists in the universe (unfortunately given the name of “The IT”), and portraying the effects of that evil’s power never really registers as much beyond sour attitudes and some intense grappling. There is far more to enjoy in certain set pieces, such as a neighborhood built up of creepy houses, children, and homemakers, a never-ending crowded beach, or a room made up of invisible stairs. There’s even a key meeting point that feels like it came out of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” music video. Still, an unclear understanding of the stakes at play doesn’t help.
Most of the actors are also doing what they can to make this material work. Reid was a strong find for the lead. She does well to convey the emotional state she is in, as one who has suffered a loss of innocence that went away with her father. There is still enough in her to show she’s capable of more and the film does well to make her overall arc work. The “Mrs.” Characters work well enough too, playing up a variety of attitudes that try to hide how little is explained at a time where at least some information would be beneficial in making the story stronger. Some of the best work comes from Zach Galifianakis who gets the movie he is in and has a fun time working within the universe as a character actually named the Happy Medium.
If anything, the most considerable error made by the cast is not really their fault (though Miller isn’t exactly shining in his part and young McCabe is continually upstaging everyone). A Wrinkle in Time tends to have characters explain some things about themselves and then resolve them without much reasoning that lines up with what we thought we knew. However, lines of dialogue are delivered with such sincerity that it feels like the film is practically cheating to make one not think about how it doesn’t line up. For a movie some willingly flippant about what matters at times, it is jarring to see development such as this for the sake of unearned emotional moments.
From here, I have a great curiosity to how the film will resonate with audiences, particularly the younger crowd. As a colorful fantasy adventure with enough quirky components, A Wrinkle In Time could play as the sort of crowd-pleasing event that John Carter and Tomorrowland didn’t end up as (in terms of box office). Being a predominantly female-driven production, it at least provides theaters with a film that appeals to an audience not often served with a movie specifically representing them, despite being made in a familiar mold. I only wish the results worked better for me, though it’s not because of a lack of effort to enjoy what was presented or feel in tune with universe devised for a particular age group to readily accept. A Wrinkle in Time has what it needs to be an enchanting, modern fantasy. I only wish it didn’t meander so much while conveying how much it’s supposed to matter.