Disney’s latest adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (they did a TV movie in 2003) had all the ingredients to be great. First off, it was my favorite book as a child (though my first exposure to the story was in an opera in 1992 put on by OperaDelaware, which adapts children’s stories for the stage so kids can relate to opera – it was awesome to 10-year-old dorky me), so I was already prepared to love this. Second, the project was left in the masterful hands of Ava DuVernay, who has yet to have a cinematic misstep (the genius of Selma and 13th alone buy her infinite mulligans). Third, you have an all-star cast consisting of Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, and Mindy Kaling (who I enjoy less than others, but I can’t deny she’s talented). Fourth, you have the Disney label behind it, which means no expense will be spared to make visual magic. And finally, when I saw the trailer, it featured some nearly tear-inducing visual effects. This was the perfect recipe for a great family film that we’d talk about for years to come!
Except, it’s bad, you guys. It’s really, really bad. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s still pretty damn bad.
Right off the bat, the film sets an odd tone. There’s nothing wrong with inclusion and empowerment, but when the film starts off with young Meg Murry (Storm Reid), a mixed-race child of an interracial marriage (not in the book) with an adopted little brother with a prodigy’s mind and a precocious attitude (also not in the book), walking through James Baldwin Middle School and passing bulletin boards of “Great Women in Literature,” where her principal’s promotion is a minor side-plot because a white guy got jealous of a black man’s promotion? Let’s just say you’re laying it on a bit thick.
There are a lot of mischaracterizations in the movie. In the book, Meg is eternally curious, but cautious. Here she’s just constantly doubting herself. In the book she’s intellectual, but something of a social misfit. Here she’s bullied by Disney’s version of Mean Girls because her father’s gone, and even her principal is telling her to “get over it” after she finally stands up to one of her tormentors. Her love interest, Calvin (Levi Miller from Pan), is one of 11 children in his family, who overachieves academically because he has to in order to stay in athletics, because he’s Big Man on Campus. That’s the book; here he’s basically just eye candy who has a dad that berates him for only getting an 82 on his report card. Charles Wallace is not adopted in the book, and is mute outside of his family. Here he takes over conversations and leads the adventure more than Meg does for the first two acts. There are aspects that DuVernay and writers Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell get right, and so much that they get wrong in an attempt to appeal to the young girls in the audience, and we haven’t even gotten to the plethora of Demi Lovato-esque pop songs that intrude on the proceedings to hammer home themes and poorly-drawn metaphors while making the actual dialogue inaudible and unintelligible.
Despite the ultra-Disneyfying of the characters, the story for the most part sticks to the source material. Meg’s father, Alex, has been missing for four years, after disappearing from his lab. A dedicated scientist, he’s been theorizing about tesseracts, the idea that space and time could be folded in upon itself for the purposes of interstellar travel. Charles Wallace befriends three witches known as the “Mrs. Ws” in the book, but just “The Mrs.” here: Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon) is set up as something of a playful antagonist (completely contrary to her book persona) who doubts Meg’s abilities throughout; Mrs. Who (Kaling), who for the most part can only speak through the words of great writers and philosophers, because she does not know Earth languages; and Mrs. Which (Winfrey), who is very large. Again, that’s not in the book (she barely even has a corporeal form), but they’re gonna get their money’s worth out of having Oprah on set. The trio of witches help the children transport themselves to the planet Uriel to begin the search for Meg’s father, which spans multiple planets and dimensional shifts.
Even then, the characterization is off. Mrs. Whatsit is completely self-absorbed, and considers the Happy Medium (one of the few characters the film gets right despite changing the gender so they could hire Zach Galifianakis) her “boyfriend.” Mrs. Who actually quotes fucking Outkast as one of her “philosophers.” Shoot me. And then there’s Mrs. Which, whose size scale is entirely inconsistent. When she first appears, she’s about three times the size of the others, which works for the sake of an introductory joke. After they get to Urial, depending on the camera angle she’s somewhere between twice as tall and 20 times taller than the others. It makes no sense, whatsoever. Finally, after they go to see the Happy Medium, she maintains a normal size for the rest of the picture. I guess they didn’t want to blow the entire effects budget on whatever the CGI version of forced perspective is.
Anyway, the children must rescue Dr. Murry from IT (they call it, “The It” in the movie, because the nuance in the name is hard to get across outside the written page), a malevolent intelligence bent on taking over the universe with negative thoughts and dark energy. Charles Wallace is eventually captured and possessed by IT, and the quest becomes doubly important, not just to save Dr. Murry, but also an innocent child.
The visual effects were chosen very carefully for the trailer, I feel. What I saw then was breathtaking: stars colliding, flying flowers, wonderful tricks of light. In the movie, those moments are still spectacular. It’s everything else that sucks, unfortunately. You can almost see the green screen studio where half the scenes were filmed, and a lot of the effects look like a poorly rendered video game. Even one of the most iconic moments from the book, when Mrs. Whatsit transforms into a flying centaur, is instead replaced with her turning into some kind of giant leaf fairy, with the kids riding on her back in clear defiance of physics (half the charm of the book was that the fantasy was at least partially grounded in actual science), seemingly only to justify the upcharge for people to see it in 3D or IMAX.
And don’t even get me started on the costuming. I never thought I’d say this, but we’ve reached a new low in how we can make Mindy Kaling look ridiculous. And of course the outfits change with every planetary jump for absolutely no fucking reason other than to give the costume department more work to try to get that Oscar next year.
All that said, there were some positive elements. Young Storm Reid and Deric McCabe, as Meg and Charles Wallace, give the best performances by far in this star-studded cast. The material they have is kind of weak, but they own every moment they’re in. Also, while the messaging of inclusion basically slaps us across the face, the idea of self-empowerment is always positive and worthy of being expressed. And while a lot of the themes of the book were completely mishandled, the most important central idea – that the power of love can conquer all things – comes across perfectly.
So there are a few saving graces here. But honestly, this was a misfire on almost every level. The socio-political weight was just too heavy. The bullying subplot was utterly meaningless. The Mrs. Ws were wasted and mishandled to an extreme degree. The visual effects, while pretty, were only good in small doses. And for the love of all things holy, Disney, enough with the Demi Lovato crap.
Before the film began, Ava DuVernay popped up on the screen to thank the audience for coming, but to me it felt like a preemptive apology. She stressed the hard work that “hundreds of talented artists” put in to make the feature, as if begging us not to judge too harshly. She added, “The process doesn’t end with the final shot. It’s just the beginning.” Well yeah, I thought, cause you have to put in all that CGI bullshit after you’re finished shooting, duh.
So in the end, I’ll do what this film couldn’t do, and sum it up like a stern but caring parent. It could have been great, but A Wrinkle in Time failed on a lot of levels. We know Ava DuVernay is a singular talent, so she will bounce back from this. But here, let’s just say I’m not mad, just disappointed.
Join the conversation in the credits below! What film should I rate next? Was I too harsh on the film? Do you remember the book better than me? Did I miss something that redeems the film? Please let me know!
6 thoughts on “Ava DuVernay Proves That Even the Best of Us Have Off Days – A Wrinkle In Time”
I never read the book, but I was thinking of going to the movie just because it might get a nomination for visual effects. Do you see that happening? You say the best were in the trailer. Will that be enough for a nomination at least?
Very possible that it could get consideration for Visual Effects and Costume Design, even though I found the costumes horrendous.