No one ever said it was going to be easy making a movie out of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved, idea-crammed and visionary 1962 Newbery Medal-winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time. Adapting such rich material—equal parts science-fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, political/religious tract, parable of good vs. evil, and coming-of-age story—clearly proved to be, in the language of L’Engle’s novel, dark and stormy. In 2003, ABC badly botched an underfunded TV movie version, but there had many previous earlier attempts to have a go at the book, including one involving legendary producer Norman Lear, who even tried interesting Stanley Kubrick to direct.
Now, that might have been something because if A Wrinkle in Time needs anything to make the leap from page to screen, it would be a world-class visionary in the director’s chair. But sitting through screenwriters Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeffrey Stockwell and Selma director Ava DuVernay’s shiny, rainbow-hued, clumsy, lurching, tonally bizarre big-screen version, you feel the makers–and everyone involved–aiming high to create a new classic but falling way short.
It’s not because they don’t have a good tale to tell. Meg Murry (played by the likable Storm Reid) is a smart, complicated and badly bullied teenager. Her world has been shattered by the four-year disappearance of her loving, movie star-handsome astrophysicist father (Chris Pine, oozing sincerity in his limited screen time), a moony beardo genius who tried to “shake hands with the universe.”
The moody, fed up Meg is a math and science wiz who attracts the romantic attentions of the high school BMOC Calvin (nicely played by Levi Miller), who despite his apparent niceness and popularity, is being demeaned at home by his a-hole of a father. Meanwhile, back at Meg’s home is her also brilliant, also movie star-beautiful mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, given little to do) and her oddly precocious, empathically tuned-in 5-year-old brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).
Everyone involved may have been aiming for a hip, trippy New Age Wizard of Oz, but Wrinkle is more on the level of, say, The NeverEnding Story.
In scenes too awkward to be believed, Charles Wallace introduces Meg to three otherworldly fairy godmothers/witchy angels–Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who. These plum roles are played by a bedazzled, bewigged Oprah Winfrey, who is introduced as a 25-ft.-tall amazon hovering over the rest of us Mere Mortals; a sharp-tongued, shin-kicking would-be Mary Poppins in the form of Reese Witherspoon; and the slightly out-there, sweetly smiling Mindy Kaling, who speaks in great quotes, citing everyone from Shakespeare and Churchill to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Outkast. All three actors get decked out in a series of outlandish makeup and outfits that would put to shame Cher and Lady Gaga at their most extreme and will surely be favorites of drag queens come next Halloween.
Anyway, off go the three kids–“warriors,” Winfrey calls them—hurtling across the cosmos, accompanied by the three immortal Mrs., as well as by incessant pop songs by DJ Khaled/Demi Lovato and Sade. Their goal is to find and rescue the missing father trapped by a rapidly spreading, purely evil force spewing ugliness and hatred across the universe and called the It. (Any resemblance between It and an actual current world leader seem purely intentional.)
Sometimes the movie’s cross-dimensional sequences are trippy, gaudy and funny, including a wondrous flying scene when Mrs. Whatsit morphs into a giant vegetable leaf, another in which fields of gossipy flowers aid in the rescue of one of the kids and still another set in a weirdly conformist suburban neighborhood where rows of blank-eyed children bounce balls in perfect unison. There’s another dandy scene, set on a terrifying, overcrowded beach, that lets loose the resourceful, insinuating Michael Pena on a creepy, too-brief role as one of It’s evil acolytes.
But way too often, L’Engle’s serious themes–parents who let down their kids, inconsolable loss, conformity vs. caving-in, the power of love–get lost in Believe-In-Yourself self-empowerment psychobabble spouted with mind-numbing regularity, especially by solemn, humorless Winfrey’s all-loving, all-knowing giantess character. And by the way, isn’t the story supposed to be about an already remarkable, brave young woman saving the universe and rescuing her father, not just finding her self-esteem?
Look, clearly, the intentions here are nothing if not noble. It’s high time we see another woman, let alone a woman of color, at the helm of a huge, would-be franchise. The representational casting is also a welcome breath of fresh air because the people on screen look the way our world does–except, of course, they’re much prettier.
But a socially progressive viewpoint, diverse casting and crew members, positive role models and hopeful upbeat messages are one thing, but a good time at the movies is another thing entirely. The movie isn’t scary, suspenseful, gripping in the least. It’s all bright colors and action sequences adding up to nothing. You start off with great expectations, but as things progress, your spirits wilt, and the damn thing evaporates while you’re watching it.
Everyone involved may have been aiming for a hip, trippy New Age Wizard of Oz, but A Wrinkle in Time is more on the level of, say, Return to Oz, Willow or The NeverEnding Story. If that’s enough for you, hey, knock yourself out. For the rest of us, L’Engle’s book and its sequels are out there waiting.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.