At one point during A Wrinkle In Time, the film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved and award-winning sci-fi/fantasy magnum opus, the eccentric Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) gives heroine Meg Murry (Storm Reid) the gift of all her faults. While the line is clearly not meant metatextually — indeed metatext is almost non-existent throughout the film — one’s enjoyment of Ava DuVernay’s ambitious and colorful but strangely muted take on L’Engle’s classic relies almost entirely on the viewer’s ability to embrace the film and all its flaws.
Meg’s quest begins with the disappearance of her brilliant scientist father Alex (Chris Pine). Alex had been working on a way to travel anywhere instantaneously by “wrinkling” space and time when he vanished without a trace. Four years later, a visit by Whatsit and her equally mysterious sisters Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) sends Meg, her prodigious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on a cross-dimensional journey to rescue Alex from the clutches of a dark force known only as The IT.
The original L’Engle book has a much-deserved place high in the pantheon of classic genre literature, a mind-bending, deeply-spiritual book that appeals to children and adults alike. It’s dream-logic narrative, fanciful vistas, and complex moral messages would prove a challenge for anyone to adapt to the screen. And this isn’t the first time Disney has tried. In 2003, they mounted a misbegotten TV-movie version that prompted L’Engle herself to say “I expected it to be bad, and it is.”
That isn’t to say that DuVernay’s version is perfect. The film has definite weaknesses, starting with the fact that DuVernay and writer screenwriter Jennifer Lee have removed or neutered several elements of the book. While some of these help the narrative — like excising Meg’s extraneous twin brothers — most of them serve to blunt the impact of the story’s message. Most notably, the film lacks the sense of existential dread that helped make the book so effective. In an effort to keep the film PG, Disney-approved, and family-friendly, DuVernay and Lee also remove the story of its main driving force.
What’s left is a pleasant, colorful, but ultimately light fantasy adventure. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, and removed from the source material, it’s quite enjoyable on its own. The film moves quickly from one fantastical set piece to another, rarely lingering on any one location. During the first act, set almost entirely on Earth, this quickness makes things feel rocky and choppy, but once Meg and the others start jumping dimensions, DuVernay discovers a steady pace that’s easy to get swept up in. The film is as vibrant and vivid as could be hoped for, from the lush and Ghibli-esque fields of the planet Uriel to the disconcerting oversaturation of the evil planet Camazotz, here reimagined as a Stepford suburb where conformity rules all. A solid and assured score by Ramin Djawadi helps to underline the journey, as well.
Lee’s screenplay can be unsteady, especially in the early parts of the movie, but it’s never truly weak. Lee is best known for writing for some of Disney’s most successful animated films of recent memory, including Frozen and Zootopia. Her script is never fanciful or deep, but it’s efficient. The constant messages about the power of love and believing in yourself have an expected level of solemnity and earnestness even if they lack subtlety or boldness. DuVernay excels more at close character moments than action scenes, and despite the simplicity of Lee’s words, DuVernay makes these moments shine.
The cast, however, routinely elevates the script in several different ways, and there isn’t a single weak performance in the bunch. What’s interesting is that most of the cast seems relatively typecast, but in the best possible sense of the word. This is most apparent in the three Mrs, all of which play to the actresses’ histories and strength. Mrs. Whatsit is flighty, bubbly, and impulsive, a character completely within Reese Witherspoon’s wheelhouse. Mrs. Who is quietly wise, speaking almost entirely in quotations by others, with Mindy Kaling’s understated performance both appealing and enchanting. Oprah’s Mrs. Which is the ultimate Earth Mother, something Winfrey could do in her sleep, but it’s clear that she’s never giving less than 100% of her heart and soul to the role. DuVernay has made a distinct effort to diversify the very white cast of the book, something that gives the film a firm grounding in reality.
But no matter the performances of the supporting cast, the center of the film is Storm Reid’s confident and fully-developed take on Meg. Reid clearly understands both Meg’s strengths and weaknesses and has integrated them into a captivating performance. Meg is wickedly smart but also suffering heavy emotionally damage due to her father’s disappearance. Reid rarely overplays either side of this equation, making Meg a balanced, relatable, and fully human character. She’s balanced by Deric McCabe and Levi Miller, who act like the highly-rational and highly-intuitive sides of her conscience respectively. McCabe’s Charles Wallace transcends the traditional precocious-child trope with ease, while Miller has the same easy emotional intelligence running through his performance as he did in Pan but refined here by a growing maturity.
It’s the cast that ultimately makes the film work despite its obvious flaws. DuVernay should be applauded for what she’s attempting to do, even if she doesn’t always hit the mark (and even if several scenes reek of obvious studio interference). Even with its missteps, the film is engaging and sumptuous, although its weightlessness works both for and against it, especially to those familiar with the book. But in the end, taken on its own, its a welcome bit of rainbow-hued uplift.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B