Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time is made with the absolute best of intentions. It’s a deeply empathetic and occasionally stirringly emotional work, presented to us by an ensemble representative of the kind of inclusive casting that most Hollywood movies only make in a perfunctory way, and it acts as a kind of course corrective to your average children’s fantasy adventure, which has only grown more militaristic over the years.
The problem is that the film seems to only contain those ambitions and very little else. It’s not a very engaging story, and it places bets — on the kind of humor its audience will find funny, on the efficacy of its performers at delivering garbled jargon that even George Lucas himself would wince at, on that the audience either hasn’t read the source material or hasn’t read recently enough to remember any of the details that have been excised — that it loses at nearly every turn. It’s a mess, and it’s the hyper-skilled DuVernay’s first strikeout at the plate.
Based on the classic novel by Madeleine L’Engle, Meg Murray (Storm Reid, who shines from moment to moment but suffers from her character’s flatness) is a bit depressed. Her father (Chris Pine), who seemed to love her with all of his heart, has been missing for four years, abandoning her physicist mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to raise her and her adopted brother, the extraordinarily intelligent six-year-old Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe, who mainly serves to shout indecipherable exposition at us). She’s bullied at school for a number of reasons, and finally snaps, lashing out angrily at the leader of her tormentors, which gets her sent home from school but also attracts the eye of Calvin (Levi Miller, who is reminiscent of Dominic Dierkes in Mystery Team), who’s struggling at home as well. That night, her family is visited by a crazy-ass white lady who calls herself Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who reveals to Meg’s mother that her research about tesseracts, a potentially world-changing method of teleportation, is real, and that her husband accidentally transported himself across the galaxy. Along with the other Mrses, the powerful and giant Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) and the enigmatic Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace go on universe-spanning adventure to save her father from the clutches of an ultimate evil. So, you know, your average Saturday night.
The Mrses retain little of their qualities from L’Engle’s novel, aside from Kaling’s character speaking in quotes from famous writers and poets (if you bet that she’d quote Hamilton back when the casting was announced, you’ve got some money waiting for you) and, even then, that’s abandoned when the screenplay needs it to be pushed into high gear. And as such, each simply feels like an extension of the actress that plays them: Oprah a wise source of comfort, Witherspoon a bundle of plucky energy, Kaling an odd and silly presence. They aren’t characters by any stretch of the imagination, and they’re never really explained as anything beyond ethereal projections across the galaxy, which is fine, I guess.
Witherspoon spends the most time with our protagonists, and that’s to the film’s detriment: She’s playing to the cheap seats in a broad fashion, the kind that’d make Jim Carrey envious, and she comes pretty damn close to being the most annoying character in the film. The other mythical figures that we see are often comic relief characters, even if they serve some sort of dramatic purpose: Zach Galifianakis as The Happy Medium, an oracle who only can see visions of the future once harmony is achieved, and Michael Pena as the Red-Eyed Man, a slick hipster evil that tempts our protagonists down the line. Both are misused here, but Pena less so, as Galifianakis is just the worst cinematic version of himself.
Aside from the costuming, which is fantastically rhinestone-studded and feels ripped straight out of a better story, A Wrinkle in Time can’t help but feel a bit generic. Sure, the landscapes are nice enough, ranging from matte-painting mountain ranges, sprinkled with flowery creatures, to an intimidating and hostile suburban neighborhood (which is included only to capture one of the most powerful images of L’Engle’s novel on film and serves no thematic or story purpose after its inclusion). Even at their most beautiful, they’re never anything more than derivative, and the images just don’t connect in a meaningful way. This is partially due to some of the worst CGI put to screen in recent memory, which often makes the shoestring VFX in Disney Channel original films look like War for the Planet of the Apes (a scene involving Pena’s character is so impossibly bad you’ve got to wonder how it got in the final product), but there’s also a lack of imagination behind the concepts at large.
There are moments — or at least they must have read that way — when it comes close to being the kind of intoxicating spectacle that touches hearts and moves minds, but they’re undercut by those effects and DuVernay’s slight awkwardness with this particular cinematic language, where Miyazaki-like wonders are rendered aloof by an unnecessary extra shot. The film is lensed by Tobias A. Schliessler, who often works for hard-nosed Hollywood “realists” like Peter Berg and rendered the Beauty and the Beast live-action film visually inert, so the blame might be passed along accordingly.
Still, it’s a wonder that this project was even made. You can see thematic glimpses of what might have attracted a filmmaker like DuVernay to this project (which she came to after passing on Black Panther), perhaps best represented by the film’s villain, the IT (David Oyelowo), here represented by what looks like a cancerous mass at the heart of the universe, having consumed the planet Camazotz and threatening to consume ours. It’s a metaphorical representation of the hate, anger, and fear that each and every one of us deals with everyday, and DuVernay gives us examples overflowing with an honest and palpable empathy: Meg’s schoolyard bully and her struggles with anorexia, the envious colleagues of her school’s principal, Calvin’s borderline abusive father. It’s a brief montage, narrated by Oprah, filled with the kind of exposition that you’d hope would have been given to her from the start, and it’s by far the best part of the film. It’s the only moment that even comes close to landing emotionally, as its eventual resolution and solution (spoiler alert: It’s spelled L-O-V-E) are bungled with the same shoddy effects work and garbage pacing that sinks the rest of the film, as Meg is tossed about a CGI landscape that doesn’t make any sense and feels deeply derivative of a number of other science-fiction worlds.
And so, A Wrinkle in Time often feels caught between two differing visions of the project: DuVernay’s emotional epic and Disney’s expansive and easy-to-market family adventure, and it fails both of them.