Director Ava DuVernay's new adaptation of the venerable children's classic manages to be enchanting and fun, if only for a brief wrinkle in time. Ironically, DuVernay faces the same predicament that delayed the publication of A Wrinkle in Time when Madeleine L'Engle first penned the novel back in the early '60s; namely, how much peril and weirdness can you infuse into a children's story and still keep it enjoyable for children?
It's a trap that finally ensnares DuVernay as the tonal shifts, frenetic pacing, and simplistic message undercut the chances for A Wrinkle in Time to either entertain or inspire. Young girls will certainly find a beacon of empowerment in the plucky heroine, but the film's second half is too cluttered with plot points to allow time for compelling drama.
The story is that four years prior, a brilliant physicist named Mr. Murry (Chris Pine) disappeared without a trace. He left behind his research partner/wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as 'Mrs. Murry'), a young daughter (Storm Reid as 'Meg'), and an infant son (Deric McCabe as 'Charles Wallace') to fill in the blanks. Meg isn't good at filling in blanks. In fact, she would rather punch them right off the page. Pugnacious, willful, and oozing with pre-teen angst, Meg is that brilliant, beautiful girl who just can't escape her own head.
Charles Wallace, now a precocious scamp, is Meg's perfect foil. Fearless and feisty, Charles Wallace uses his staggering intellect to tackle each new adventure without the slightest thought to consequence. He thinks nothing, for instance, of inviting a bizarre stranger named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) into their house in the middle of the night. Mrs. Murry is ready to call the cops until the dithering guest drops the proverbial microphone by uttering the word "tesseract".
Before Loki used the tesseract to menace in Joss Whedon's The Avengers (of course, the "tesseract" in that film is a different device), Mr. Murry was using it as a theoretical construct to connect distant galaxies. A bridge to traverse millions of light years using only the particular (or 'true') frequency resonating within each individual. The creation of a 'wrinkle' in time, if you will.
The film's early scenes, which focus primarily on Meg's inability to cope with the loss of her father, resonate with a palpable realism. Monstrous classmates mercilessly pick at her insecurities, provoking physical confrontations and driving Meg even further into her self-imposed isolation. It's a dark place to be for such a thoughtful young girl; trapped somewhere between unrealized potential and suffocating bitterness.
Effective, too, is the dynamic between Meg and the human Energizer bunny that is Charles Wallace. His mischievous grin and adorable little sweater vest make him the most dangerous Pied Piper ever; you'll follow him anywhere. When he and Meg lock philosophical horns -- Meg preaching caution to Charles Wallace's reckless exploration -- the story crackles with an infectious energy that kids will instantly find relatable. These contradictory worldviews make for compelling tension, and provoke a genuine sense of joy when Meg finally silences her dreary internal monologue.
Once all of the "Mrs. Ws" appear, however, there's no time left to delicately crack open Meg's protective shell. The story must now cram as many plot points as possible into their search for Mr. Murry. It's a problem of truncation that plagues many literary adaptations that would benefit from either an expanded running time or multiple installments. And yet we got three Divergent films. Go figure.
The script is crippled by the inescapable fact that the Mrs. Ws simply aren't enchanting. For the uninitiated, the Mrs. Ws are Mrs. Whatsit, along with Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in famous quotes or popular song lyrics, and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who is the film's self-righteous moralistic center. These characters, so delightfully realized in literary form, are little more than cinematic sudden comfort, conveniently providing Meg the advice or device she needs to keep the plot moving.
Witherspoon is somewhat entertaining, chewing the scenery as the uncouth Mrs. Whatsit and openly questioning Meg's mettle. Kaling's comedic talents are completely wasted, though, as she's tasked with dropping pop culture references that fall completely flat. And what can one say about Winfrey's dreadful rendition of Mrs. Which? The fault of Winfrey's stilted and zombie-like delivery falls solely on DuVernay, who fails to make this unflappable Jesus figure relatable (or likeable or impressive or anything).
The sincere emotional and psychological insight of the film's first half is replaced by feeble platitudes about finding inner strength, maintaining focus, and trusting yourself. Certainly, any child savvy enough to grasp the complexities of the literary version of A Wrinkle in Time is well past such empty sentimentality.
This simplicity clashes with the delightful weirdness of the film's final act, which traps viewers on charred space neurons, confronts them with demonic possession, and even makes a brief visit to the set of Jodorosky's The Holy Mountain. These visuals are a true highlight, suggesting that DuVernay was at least willing to push for absurdist heights. Had the story's themes and the Mrs. Ws been approached with the same psycho-freakout energy, A Wrinkle in Time might not feel like such a confused, pandering mess.
The real question of concern is, "Will children enjoy A Wrinkle in Time?"
It seems likely that pre-teen girls will appreciate and relate to Meg. Storm Reid is a revelation in the role, capturing every nuance of this fragile little girl (re)discovering her will to survive. When she finally purges those inner demons in the film's final reel, it will leave you shaken and weeping.
Little boys, unfortunately, will struggle to find similar footing. Charles Wallace, who, in novelized form, courageously sacrifices his mind in order to locate Mr. Murry, becomes a truly menacing figure in the film's later stages.
Adults, undoubtedly nostalgic for the book they read as a child, will get whiplash when the tone shifts from thoughtful family drama, to mindless action adventure, to psychedelic nightmare. DuVernay clearly wants to show us a good time, but a guiding artistic vision never materializes.