Review: DuVernay’s Talents Wasted on Cluttered, Clunky A Wrinkle In Time

If all you want to know is whether I liked this movie or not, the answer is: No, I did not.

And perhaps what made me like it even less is that it made me feel cynical about what it was trying to achieve and how it went about attempting to achieve it. Based on Madeleine L’Engle’s wildly popular fantasy novel, released under the Disney banner, and directed by the exceptionally talented Ava DuVernay (Selma, I Will Follow, The 13th), A Wrinkle In Time is a floppy, empty, vague effort that smothers us with hippie-bumper-sticker speak about light and dark, believing in yourself, and not conforming to what others expect of you. These are all worthy messages, mind you, but they are all but lost in this cluttered, exposition-heavy nonsense.

A Wrinkle in Time

Image courtesy of Disney

And I say this as someone who is often prone to giving fantasy stories something of a pass when it comes to over-explaining narratives and using the heartstrings as a means of deepening the story. But A Wrinkle In Time is oppressive with the way it panders to its younger target audience (the film is rated PG), and it betrays what could have been its strengths.

For example, this is a film that makes a great deal of the fact that its young heroine, Meg Murry (Storm Reid), is a gifted young science enthusiast, much like her missing father (Chris Pine), who vanished mysteriously five years ago while investigating the possibility of bending space and time to travel across the universe in the time it takes to think about doing so. Even in the wake of Black Panther, the idea of having a female scientist at the center of a big-budget film is unique, and this movie bypasses Meg using her intelligence to save the day by making the solution to her problems the equivalent of kids clapping for Tinkerbell to keep her alive. The new-age crap quotient borders on intolerable.

Meg lives with her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and things around the house have been fairly bleak since dad vanished. Meg is having trouble balancing the love she has for her lost father with the fact that he abandoned his family for the sake of experimentation. She’s also bullied in school for being a bit of a nerd, which takes its toll on her confidence.

But one day, three celestial beings—who seem to have all the answers but decide to dole them out as riddles rather than just being useful—arrive to take Meg, Charles Wallace (everyone calls him “Charles Wallace,” not Charles or Chuck or Charlie, but Charles Wallace), and her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) to their planet using Meg’s father’s discovery (known as a tesseract) to find him.

The three astral travelers—Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Withersppon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (a 20-foot-tall Oprah Winfrey)—are meant to bring a little star quality to the film, along with answers, but it’s almost impossible not to get a look-at-me vibe from their performances. Granted the hair, makeup and costumes for these three women are exceptionally realized, but it feels like window dressing to cover up the fact that the watered-down philosophy that they’re actually speaking is self-help book gibberish. Other fantastical characters played by Zach Galifianakis (as Happy Medium) and Michael Peña drop in to be confounding and leave having added nothing to the story or Meg’s life.

Director DuVernay (working from an adaptation by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell) is someone who works best with emotions and characterizations that are deep and eager to be mined for all they’re worth. Her previous films have ripped into my heart and made me eager to explore situations and feelings along with her characters. And there is virtually none of that in A Wrinkle In Time.

I appreciate that she has a cast that represents a great number of ethnicities and backgrounds, but that alone doesn’t make the movie work. Even the no-brainer, easiest scene to get right—the father/daughter reunion—is robbed of its impact because we don’t have a connection to their relationship beyond Meg being sad for most of the movie.

At a certain point in the film, Charles Wallace is possessed by the same evil force that swiped the father from them, and the kid is overplaying things so severely that I was rooting for Meg to just leave him behind while she escaped back to earth. That’s how much I didn’t care about these characters.

So little of the film feels original or interesting that that cynical voice in my head crept in repeatedly, telling me that all A Wrinkle In Time had become an excuse for Winfrey and her friends to play dress-up and deliver life-coaching lessons. I’ve never read the novel, but I have no trouble believing that it carries an emotional and dramatic resonance that the film version is sadly lacking. You can almost see the emptiness on screen waiting to be filled, and it’s shocking that this creative team couldn’t make that happen.

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