I’m going to try to write this review with as few qualifiers as possible because I think a critic’s job is to tell the truth. However, this is my one salvo before I jump on the honesty train: I really really wanted to like this movie. I think Ava DuVernay is a wonderful filmmaker, from Selma to 13th, but A Wrinkle in Time isn’t good. In fact, it’s not even average.
Based on the book of the same title by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time is a near unfilmable story as it follows Meg Murray and her brother, Charles Wallace, through several planes of existence to find their father, Alexander Murray, a noted physicist who has traveled through dimensions with the use of his mind. That’s the simple version (without the overt Christian messaging).
The films tries to pair down the many threads into a “streamlined” iteration, truncating and eliminating characters and settling on a core six: Meg (Storm Reid), Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and Calvin (Levi Miller), along with Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon).
One could argue that DuVernay and co. tried too hard to simplify the main story, while leaving multiple holes in the process, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
In terms of acting, for the most part, the children are fine. Yes, there are multiple “cringey” moments, but much of that is not due to the ability of the children. Personally, part of adaption is not solely relying on the dialogue within the books. Typically, great adaptions marry original, amalgams, and created dialogue together. That wasn’t done effectively here. Instead, Reid and Miller left like floating flowers with little direction for emotional tact. Once again, that’s not a Reid or Miller problem, that’s a script problem. McCabe also delivers a valiant showing, but I thought he was wretchedly miscast in the part of Charles Wallace, which unfortunately, most of the film hinges upon.
The weakness of the script also fosters cringey lines from Mrs. Who, whose shtick is to never use her own words, rather just quotes. In one failed attempt at being “hip,” she makes a reference to Chris Tucker’s Friday. Rather than saying, “Dammmmmm,” she says, “Dannnnnngggg.” Ahhh, Disney (Note: other than this instance, Mrs. Who’s characterization was actually somewhat fun).
The editing and pacing of the film is haphazard. For every moment you get your feet under you, the editing shifts you to an unknown spot with little continuity. The choppiness gives the film a patchwork swirling feel, which may be the conceptual workings of time, but those workings don’t make for a pleasant viewing.
The costumes worn by Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling were over-the-top and at times, ghastly. I don’t know whose idea it was to make the three look like a Panic at the Disco video, but it was a misguided attempt at originality. Instead, all three characters’ appearances appear to be clunky, hollow, and crass.
Even the strong points of the film, the visuals and special effects were pushed far beyond their limits. Yes, at times A Wrinkle in Time is stunning (such as Witherspoon turning into a giants leaf glider….yes, you read that correctly), but at other points, the CGI is obtrusive. From Winfrey standing seemingly way out of scale, even for a giant apparition of herself, to obvious mocap mapping of sneakers. With all of the advancements in CGI technology, most films’ visuals are often obsolete within 5 years. With A Wrinkle in Time, the visuals will be obsolete by November.
Additionally, what’s most disappointing about the CGI is a reliance by DuVernay on parlor tricks rather storytelling. Often, the most stunning visual scenes are more like “look what we can do” moments, instead of points to advance the narrative.
In fact, A Wrinkle in Time‘s strongest period happens when Winfrey’s Mrs. Which explains to Reid about IT, a being of pure evil attempting to infect every dimension and world. As scenes of cruelty, greed, and envy flash across the screen with Winfrey’s voice over, the audience finally gets steady ground beneath them. It’s a moment of actual storytelling, and it turns the movie, if only so slightly, away from merely saying the word ‘love’ to demonstrating what it is through a juxtaposition.
Nevertheless, most of A Wrinkle in Time is merely characters shouting the word ‘love’ in lieu of anything else, as if the mere mention of the word brings mystifying tranquility and understanding. It’s a shame because “love” is the central theme of the novel, yet it’s never fully encapsulated here. Instead, I felt little attachment to any of the characters or their desires, with much of that having to do with a lack of exposition.
Never mind that their desires often changed at a whim with little explanation. When the children fall into Red’s (Michael Pena) trap, I never felt any danger for them because the danger was never explained. Why was Red dangerous? Your guess is as good as mine. And because of that, what’s supposed to be the most satisfying portion of the film, the culmination of Meg’s search for her father, is stumbled upon with little more than a whimper.
Nothing the characters say have any meaning because the film spends much of its time pairing down, simplifying dialogue into Instagram tags, and beating the audience over the head with pining teenage glances between Reid and Miller, instead of building a solid narrative for the characters to stand on.
The lack of character development also shifts to Happy Medium, played by Zach Galifianakis, who has a thing with Mrs. Whatsit, which the audience is never privy to. Instead, the relationship is left out to dry with awkward asides that I guess are supposed to be funny?
Also, a tad off topic, but seriously, can we stop having the default voice for every maniacal character be done with harsh tones that are dropped several octaves? IT is just another instance of the cliche and unexplained in a film that needed to lead its audience with baby steps in order to be successful.
You’re going to read a lot of reviewers who will offer qualifiers, who will hedge, who will speak more about the historical nature of the film (which is true, it is historical for a Black female director to helm a big budget project), but to be perfectly honest, had Ava DuVernay’s name not been behind A Wrinkle in Time it would rightly be ravaged.
The lesson here should be that inclusivity, and feelings of hope mean very little if the film isn’t good, and if the basic tenants of story telling aren’t held to.
I hope this misfire won’t be a deterrent for large studios giving more women of color a shot at directing passion projects. But for now, I’ll have to sulk that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t more.
Photo credit: Engadget