**1/2 out of ****
(for thematic elements and some peril)
Released: March 9, 2018
Runtime: 109 minutes
Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Storm Reid, Chris Pine, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Michael Peña, André Holland
Conventional wisdom holds that novels are better than their movie adaptations, and that’s generally true, but it’s not a pejorative constant. Diehard fans of “Lord of the Rings” loved the Peter Jackson trilogy even as it cut big sections of Tolkien’s books while also creating entirely new characters.
There’s also the Harry Potter series; aside from the somewhat-muddled piecemeal of Goblet of Fire, those films impressively condensed Rowling’s thick, layered narratives to their most resonant essentials. In short, film adaptations need not be “lesser than”, but there is an art to getting them right.
A Wrinkle In Time doesn’t quite get it right. It’s a decent enough movie on its own terms, a truly welcome one for young girls to feel empowered by, and a perfect daddy/daughter date movie (the film’s corresponding relationship is its most emotional, effective virtue). It also makes science as fascinating as fantasy.
Those who’ve never read the award-winning 1962 sci-fi fantasy will likely enjoy what they see and experience, and even feel a warm uplift, but devotees who know and love Madeleine L’Engle’s classic won’t help but see only a film marred by compromise.
A Wrinkle In Time is the story of Meg (newcomer Storm Reid, a star in the making), a 13-year-old girl who, with the help of three astral figures (Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey), must travel across space and time to rescue her father Alex (Chris Pine; he and Reid are the heart and soul here). For four years, he’s been held captive by an evil force.
Tagging along for the interdimensional adventure are Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and school yard crush Calvin (Levi Miller), who provides a sweet, chaste love interest based in respect rather than hormones.
At its foundations, this is actually a solid transfer from page to screen. Faithfully adapted in the broadest strokes, A Wrinkle In Time takes its liberties in all of the details. They’re not all bad, either; some changes are even inspired.
Director Ava DuVernay (Selma) and screenwriter Jennifer Lee (Frozen) have made the Murray family multi-racial, starting with mixed-race parents (white and black) and daughter Meg, and transforms Charles Wallace into an Hispanic adoptee.
That blend affirms so many positive things without undercutting anything fundamental. The same can be said for how DuVernay and Lee expand on themes of bullying, in ways that are character-driven and nuanced, not didactic, as well as their clever shift of the Happy Medium from female to Zach Galifiankis‘s male. Along with dry comic relief, he provides some legitimately challenging wisdom.
But even before it gets to inexplicable omissions, A Wrinkle In Time starts to feel like a patchwork edit of a longer movie that was cut to meet a less-than-two-hours mandate.
The introduction of the magical Mrs. characters – Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Winfrey) – are rushed and a bit too cute (a tone that remains, unfortunately). Readers will be able to fill in the necessary blanks, but the uninitiated may find the story’s transition to these incarnate spirit-beings (the book’s term “angels” is noticeably avoided) as oddly expedient. Whatsit is perky, Who speaks in quotes, and Which is fully Oprah-fied, towering over all others like a goddess in the sky.
Their first galactic tesseract (a universe-bending form of space travel at supersonic speeds) takes them to the utopian planet of Uriel. Visually it’s the film’s boldest sequence, popping with vibrant colors and dazzling eco-imagination. It delivers on the hope of what people came to see.
The money is all there on the screen, from digital effects to costumes to various dimensions and worlds. The only designs that come off poorly: the gaudy glitz and glam of hair and makeup that’s trying way too hard.
What doesn’t is the milquetoast spirituality. There’s nothing particularly offensive about its humanistic universalism; it just seems an inadequate feel-good weapon against the The Darkness, the very evil that threatens all of existence. For an enemy that requires something bigger than ourselves to defeat it, it seems the answer should be more than to look inside ourselves to find it.
That’s not the book’s spirituality, Christianity is, but it comes as no surprise that Disney would strip that out in a big budget tentpole being sold to the secular masses. Indiewire’s David Ehrlich likens it to “The Secret”, but it’s actually more specific than that fraudulent mumbo jumbo. The Christian values are still there, in word and essence, but their Source has been ignored.
Setting aside how you may feel about that personally, it neuters the dramatic intensity. Plus, while there are digital affectations of awe and wonder they fail to genuinely evoke either.
The IT is watered-down as well, reducing that embodiment of the Darkness to a non-ideological malevolence, rather than the book’s insidious tempter of spiritual bondage that cloaks the yoke of conformity in a false guise of comfort. This minimizes Charles Wallace, too, whose courageous defiance is clipped to eerie brainwashing, and cuts entirely a fan favorite that embodies the very essence of the story’s themes and ideas.
There aren’t many PG-rated live action spectacles to be had at the multiplexes (in female-driven sci-fi, no less), and Disney is to be commended for providing one that many will enjoy. Some, depending on their own life experiences, will be deeply moved; it’s easy to see why. With sincerity and a big heart, A Wrinkle In Time puts good out into the world, but corporate calculation – likely beyond DuVernay’s creative control – keeps it from being great.