2.5 out of 5 stars. Minor spoilers ahead for those unfamiliar with the story.
I first read Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel “A Wrinkle in Time” when I was in elementary school. I remember not being especially thrilled by it, but decided last year, in anticipation of Disney and Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation, it was time to reread this book that has been beloved by so many since its debut in 1962. My first take away from reading this story as an adult was that, beneath the science and the fantastical new worlds and creatures that inhabit it, it is simple yet deep, with an important message for the world and a complex and relatable heroine. My second take away was that this story is pretty much un-filmable*.
That story revolves around the Murry family. Parents Alex (Chris Pine) and Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are scientists who believe they have discovered a way to travel through time and space in the blink of an eye; we learn at the beginning of the film that it has been four years since Dr. Alex Murry disappeared while working on this project. Their younger, adopted son Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) is precocious and highly intelligent. Their teenage daughter Meg (Storm Reid) is also smart but also troubled, as most teenagers are. She’s unpopular, unsure of herself, and has struggled to deal with her father’s disappearance.
It is on the anniversary of Dr. Murry’s disappearance that Charles Wallace introduces Kate, Meg, and her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) to three celestial beings known as the “Mrs. Ws”: Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). They promise to help Meg and Charles Wallace find their father and transport them to another planet using the tesseract that their parents were trying to prove the existence of. But this isn’t a simple search and rescue mission. They encounter a black cloud called IT, the embodiment of all evil that is slowly taking over the universe. Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace are drawn into this battle of light versus dark, but in the end, it is only Meg who has what is needed to save everyone.
Ava DuVernay is such a visionary filmmaker. She crafts gorgeous worlds for her characters to travel to; the visuals explode with color, and the CG effects are only occasionally overwhelming (such as in the film’s climax). But the most impressive thing is that, despite everything that’s going on around them, DuVernay never lets the film’s focus shift away from the characters. They are an integral part of every shot, every moment, every occurrence. She also knows her audience, and knows the kind of film she wants to make, resulting in a diverse group of people working behind and in front of the camera. Jennifer Lee (of “Frozen” fame) wrote the screenplay; co-producer Catherine Hand was a fan of the book as a child; and DuVernay herself is the first woman of color to direct a film with a budget exceeding $100 million. The Mrs. Ws are representative of a diverse group of women, while DuVernay chose to make the Murry’s a mixed race family, giving the leading role to newcomer Reid. This movie will likely appeal to a lot of kids, and it’s exciting to know that they will get to see this young black girl as the hero of this story.
But this film is also evidence of just how un-filmable I feared the book would be, and much of the book struggles to translate to the screen while still forming a story that is both entertaining and coherent. The novel is less action-based, instead dealing in more abstract concepts. The villain is an evil disembodied brain bent on controlling others, and it is only through her love for her family that Meg can defeat it. That message of love and light conquering hate and darkness is still prevalent, as is Meg’s growing confidence in herself by the film’s conclusion, but the execution sadly falls flat. A lot of it could be due to this story being geared too much toward children; cynical adults will find it hard to accept the Mrs. Ws’ sudden appearance, or Meg’s ability to very quickly save the day. Many aspects that worked fine as written word—allowing the reader to fill in the gaps with their own imagination—come off as campy in a visual and audial medium, like little Charles Wallace turning into an evil being under the influence of the IT. That could also be in part due to the fact that the novel was published in 1962, and supposedly took place in that time period; DuVarnay’s film is set in the present day, and so much has changed about not just technology, but people. We do get a glimpse of Meg’s daily life at school, including her beef with popular mean girl Veronica (Rowan Blanchard), but that’s just a rather unnecessary cliché thrown into a film that is already bogged down with characters (I haven’t even mentioned Zach Galifianakis’ Happy Medium, or Michael Pena’s Red).
We do get a lot of great moments with the characters, but when stepping back and viewing the film as a whole, they aren’t very impactful. The elimination of a scene from the book between Meg’s reunion with her father (which is a highlight of the film) and the climax hinders the film, as the story feels like it starts moving too fast, leaving little room for the audience to absorb the complicated emotions toward her father that Meg struggles with. It is easy to appreciate the film’s message, but hard to become emotionally attached, as the film, although made with good intentions, loses a bit of its heart in its ambition. Ultimately, I left the theater with feelings as complicated as the movie I’d just watched—wanting to like it, but knowing that I didn’t like it, but not knowing exactly why I didn’t like it. Maybe it is purely just for kids, and not for people like me; if so, I hope it creates the sort of memories for them that the book has for so many over the years.
Runtime: 109 minutes. Rated PG.
*Disney did adapt “A Wrinkle in Time” in 2003 as a television movie for ABC. I have never seen it, and cannot vouch for whether it does a better job tackling the story than this film does.