There are three central, and competing, elemental experiences unfolding in Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time. The first is a grand visual experience: a beautiful, colorful, and vividly created universe, containing strange locations and stranger characters. The second is an emotionally powerful story: a young girl isolated from her community, bullied and lonesome, searching for her missing father, for love, for self-actualization. The third is a winding and rolling plot: three women, billions-of-years old, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, leading three children on an universe-crossing adventure to rescue a missing NASA scientist.
The first two succeed, and beautifully so.
Visually, DuVernay shows her skill not just in imagining but realizing what is a bizarrely orchestrated set of people and places. Whether she’s creating simply constructed but resonant images of the Three Women, dark and tortuous fantasy landscapes that rival The Lord of the Rings, or filling empty space with mathematical constructs, A Wrinkle in Time rarely misfires on the visual front. (With one notable exception that includes a leafy green-like Reese Witherspoon, but you can’t win them all).
Likewise, the emotional storytelling of Wrinkle reaches further than I expected. Much of this comes in the performance of Storm Reid as Meg, who provides a powerful portrait of a hurting young woman distanced from herself and her loved ones. The school scenes in the first act are relatable and poignant, especially one in which Meg faces off against a bullying mean girl and then a tired school principal (André Holland). Likewise, Chris Pine as Meg’s father does lovely work despite his limited screen time, building a connection with a daughter and newly adopted son that makes an inter-dimensional search seem worthy of the effort.
The emotional plank of the picture is built around woundedness, and those who’ve felt their wounds deeply, in youth or adulthood, should find a place to feel for Meg and her family.
The third element, the plot, unfortunately cannot maintain the herculean effort meant to uphold it. Adapted from Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 novel by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, A Wrinkle In Time just doesn’t have a cohesive and compelling movie tale to tell. It’s possible this problem–and it is a problem–is built into the source material. More than once I found myself pondering why wholesale scenes were included, so unnecessary or confounding were they, that I simply concluded they must have been in the book and the writers must have felt an obligation to uphold the narrative.*
Adding to this problem is that L’Engle’s book is a Christian one, and Lee and Stockwell’s efforts to adapt seem to have landed uncomfortably with that fact. The central conflict between “The Light” (Light = The Women) and “The It” (It=evil) rarely rises above the level of feigned concern, and without the allegorical richness of L’Engle, the threat of a generic growing darkness felt far too familiar to be dangerous.
Despite a flimsy plot, though, A Wrinkle In Time generally works. The visceral experience alone makes the movie a valuable watch, and I imagine children will find the experience extremely pleasing. That’s crucial because A Wrinkle In Time is indeed a children’s film. In fact, that may be the most surprising revelation about this picture. In this era of four-quadrant films that must appeal to all demographics simultaneously, Disney allowed Ava DuVernay to make a 100 Million dollar kids movie. That’s not just a weird project for Disney to embark upon. It’s an important one.
A Wrinkle In Time stands apart from the vast majority of Disney output in the company’s modern era. It’s a fully 21st-century feat of visual wonder, to be sure, but spiritually, A Wrinkle In Time fits better in the classic Disney live-action world. As a wildly imaginative fantasy, made for kids, with tons of heart and a silly plot, it keeps better company with Bedknobs and Broomsticks than with Beauty and the Beast or Into the Woods. For this reviewer, that’s a compliment. But in truth, I imagine this old-time, family values driven, emotion-based kids picture will leave many audiences over 12-years old very cold.
*It’s been more than 20 years since I read A Wrinkle In Time, and make no pretense to recall its plot in detail.
–Christopher Zumski Finke